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All About the Benjamins (2002)

AKA Good Boys (Japan), All About the Money (Denmark)

Starring Ice Cube, Mike Epps, Tommy Flanagan, Carmen Chaplin, Eva Mendes, Valarie Rae Miller, Anthony Giaimo, Jeff Chase, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gino Salvano, Tony Ward, Dominic Chianese Jr., Anthony Michael Hall

Directed by Kevin Bray

Expectations: Low.

I took a gamble on All About the Benjamins. As a modern film it could go either way, but I surmised that the trashy nature I supposed it had would be enough to override any negatives brought about by my distaste for this era of mainstream filmmaking (not that this is exactly mainstream). When the opening scene brings together the Looney Tunes, hot pants, shotguns, a Grandma with a handgun, and a Taser blast to the balls, I thought we might have a verified winner on our hands. Unfortunately, All About the Benjamins does not live up, but one thing is for sure: this movie, and the characters within are all about the benjamins… to a fault. Our heroes are so focused on getting paid at any cost that they aren’t especially likable, but that’s OK, the script is just being true to its characters (and the film’s title), so really I can’t ask too much more of them.

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who’s on the hunt for Reggie (Mike Epps), a repeat offender and all-around hustla. After an awesome foot chase through the streets of Miami and at least one Thai restaurant (called Try My Thai), Epps ducks into a mysterious gate that resembles the opening “down the barrel” section of the James Bond films. Ice tries to follow him but a couple of killers were on the roof scoring $20 million in diamonds and they don’t want any witnesses. From here the film jumps off on a non-stop ride with Ice and Epps trying their damnedest to get what’s theirs, and a piece of what’s not.

This might sound pretty hot, and I’m sure there are a lot of people out there that really enjoy this movie. It’s not horrible by any stretch, and it actually contains a lot of individually good moments and jokes. The main problem I have with it, though, is that it’s just another in a long line of films that tried to capitalize on the popularity of the films of Quentin Tarantino. The problem with cribbin’ Tarantino’s style is that Tarantino’s style is a mash-up of everyone else’s style, and without the specific knowledge of Tarantino to inform its usage, you get something like this. Loud, brash and trying its hardest to be in-your-face and wildly comic with its incredibly gratuitous violence, but failing at almost every turn. In a way, its “throw everything at the screen” mentality does remind me of the feeling of a Hong Kong gun battle movie, but that’s more of a feeling I get than anything in the movie specifically reminding me of it… if that makes any sense. What’s also frustrating about the film is that director Kevin Bray doesn’t even attempt to hide the fact that he’s going for a Tarantino-style film; there’s a goddamn trunk shot for god’s sake.

My other main concern is that everyone in this movie is constantly yelling. It’s one of those things that bothers me in movies, where everyone is always at the same intensity level the whole way through. This can work if everything comes together well, but in All About the Benjamins in begins to grate fast. I also have to take issue with the “jive-ass” nature of the two lead characters. I know it’s an action-comedy, so the reality is heightened and it’s something of a fantasy, but it seems to uphold every stereotype about black males that have been kicking around for years. In a way, it also feels like a modern, Hollywood version of a Blaxploitation movie, with empowered black characters going up against the white man (who’s also a foreigner, too). That’s probably too reductive, but when a black-led film is so hard to get made in Hollywood, I have to question the judgement of Ice Cube to go ahead with the production of a film that only reinforces stereotypical ideals of black males in every moviegoer that saw the film or its trailer. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, and I recognize the merit in an action-comedy made by and for black people, but I just wish it were a more enjoyable film.

I can’t even imagine what this movie would be like on network TV, but it’s probably 45 minutes long and filled with a lot of good “monkey-fighting snakes on a monday-to-friday plane” moments.

With that all said, All About the Benjamins gets a couple of things exactly right. Its series of fucked-up events the guys find themselves in is rather well-scripted. As an action-comedy it also delivers both laughs and action, and not the CG-aided bullshit you might expect from a 2002 film. Nope, this is all old-school pyrotechnics with bazookas blowing up delivery trucks and boats crashing through flimsy docks. I can’t even put into words how refreshing it was to see a modern film go this route, and one look at the budget (around $15 million) explains why. In a “low-budget” film like this, it’s the only way to go. The proliferation of cash in Hollywood — the execs’ “All About the Benjamins” mentality, if you will — is exactly what ruined the action film. Who needs $200 million dollars of green-screened trash when for a fraction of the cost we can have real things exploding in front of real film cameras? I mean, really, why don’t more films go this route?

All About the Benjamins also features a great, bass-heavy score, so make sure to pump that subwoofer to hear it in all its glory. Unfortunately the hip hop songs themselves aren’t as good, but your enjoyment of them will hinge specifically on your tolerance of early 2000s rap. As a man who will pick the ’80s or ’90s stuff any day of the week, I wasn’t particularity in my element, but the main theme by Puff Daddy is a definite standout.

The acting is about average for this era of film, with both Ice Cube and Mike Epps playing off each other well and fighting for control of the film. Ice’s character is a lot more animated than his role as Doughboy in Boyz n the Hood, so through this film we’re able to see more of his dynamic range. I still feel like he’s basically playing a version of himself and not really acting as a character, but that’s OK because he’s got charisma to spare and he’s always enjoyable to watch. Epps holds his own, playing the quick-witted hustla perfectly. I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything before, but he’s definitely got talent. While I was thinking that, I also thought that with his talent he could be playing a more challenging and rewarding role, but for what this film is, he fills the role given him very well.

All About the Benjamins is fast-paced and not too bad, but it’s also not too good. It’s never boring, instead jam-packed full of action and wildly gratuitous violence. I have no problem with violence in film, but it just doesn’t mesh well with the other elements assembled here and it feels much too celebratory to be enjoyable. I also wouldn’t have expected the most modern and arguably most mainstream movie of Ice Fest to be the most thug, and the most liberal in its usage of “nigga”, but it is. I don’t really recommend the film, but you could definitely do a lot worse.

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