VOD Review - Deuces

This is the fifth feature by writer-director Jamal Hill who has focused on the lives of young African-Americans dealing with gang and drug violence on urban streets over the past ten years. He's caught the attention of Queen Latifah who has executive produced his last two features and now this one, which will be his third under her Flavor Unit Entertainment banner. It is however the first to be made outside Hill's preferred location of Philadelphia. This movie is instead set in Los Angeles and any unfamiliarity with the City of Angels shows as Hill never establishes a solid sense of place, as opposed to his previous and best film Brotherly Love. That 2015 movie really felt like Hill knew and understood the Philly neighborhood he was in, that of Overbrook. Here, Hill mostly sets the action in downtown LA, but there's such a disconnection from it that the background could be anywhere LA, which may or may not be purposeful on Hill's part.

The premise is about an undercover cop who tries to bring down a violent gang linked to all kinds of gun murders. However, as it goes along, the cop's allegiances start to change. This is not uncommon from other undercover cop films like Point Break (1991) or Donnie Brasco (1997). The difference in this movie is its extra layer of intrigue. The undercover cop in a way falls in love with the leader of the drug gang, but the undercover cop also has a sister who unbeknownst to the cop also falls in love with the leader of that same, drug gang. Both siblings get close to the same criminal without knowing it. It's a very compelling idea that Hill crafts, but arguably he doesn't do enough with it.

Larenz Tate (Love Jones and Crash) stars as Stephen Brooks aka "Deuces," the aforementioned leader of the gang who owns and runs a bar but who aspires to get into real estate and rise like Donald Trump. He also has an interest in motorcycles but one would never be able to tell because he has the ability to pass himself as a very respectable and very superbly-dressed businessman with at times, quite a preppy style.

Lance Gross (House of Payne and Sleepy Hollow) co-stars as Jason Foster aka "Reese," the undercover cop who infiltrates Stephen's gang and quickly bonds with Stephen, much to the chagrin of the other gang members. It's also to the chagrin of Jason's boss, Lt. Henderson, played by Chance Kelly (Aquarius and Generation Kill) who sees Jason fitting into the role of criminal or at least compatriot too easily.

This is where Hill's screenplay, co-written by Curtis Bryant, falters. Jason and Stephen bond too quickly. Jason becomes a compatriot way too fast and Stephen starts defending him strongly for no concrete reason. There is a moment when Stephen saves Jason's life, but it happens too late in the movie for it to have the impact it should have. It gets to a point where the two would kill for each other but the movie never succeeds in convincing us why they would. The best example recently of an undercover cop and criminal bonding quickly and believably is The Night Manager. That Emmy-winning series had a longer time, but it still was able to set-up early why the two men would bond with each other, or at least why the criminal would bond with the undercover cop so fast.

In The Fast and the Furious, the undercover cop falls in love with the criminal's sister and this familial connection helps to bond the two men, but in that 2001 film, all three were aware of that connection at least on its surface. Here, this movie has Stephen fall in love with Jason's sister, Janet, played by Meagan Good (Brick and Think Like a Man), but it's dramatic irony that for most of the running time neither of the three characters realize they have that connection. When it's revealed, it's too little, too late.

Jason never knows his sister is dating Stephen, the guy he's trying to arrest. When he does find out, Hill doesn't really use it to build any kind of stakes to either of the character's relationships. By the end, it might as well have been that Jason and Janet weren't related at all. Their being siblings ultimately doesn't matter. It doesn't affect the plot or have any bearing on anything that follows.

The ending is unconvincing as it tries to be the ending of The Fast and the Furious as opposed to the ending of Point Break or Donnie Brasco. It presumes we've fallen in love with the main criminal so much that we want to see him walk off into the sunset, despite the fact that he's a murderer. The problem is that the main criminal in The Fast and the Furious was never a murderer. Here, Stephen is, so letting him walk away with no consequences is tough to swallow.

It does help that Larenz Tate is ridiculously charismatic. He has always had a swagger to him that even when he's playing an awkward character as in The Inkwell (1994), he still manages to be endearing or attractive in some way. He's of course gorgeous, boyishly handsome and simply sexy that it makes sense how and why anyone would follow and fall in love with him. So, in the end, Larenz Tate saves this movie. He's just that good an actor and screen presence.

Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 27 mins.


Played at the 2016 Philadelphia Film Festival.
Available on Netflix on April 1.

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