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Friday, Aug. 4, 2006

Worth a lot more than 50-Cent's


"Hustle and Flow," the latest hip-hop movie to hit our screens, looks more than a little like its direct predecessor, 50-Cent's "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'." The story arc, which involves a small-time street hustler overcoming the gangsta lifestyle to embark on a musical career, is almost identical. But the best thing in "Get Rich" is that actor Terrence Howard (who played 50-Cent's jail buddy) is back here in the lead role. And you've got a soundtrack, once again, of some of the best names in the biz (3/6 Mafia, Al Kapone) to ram it all home.

Hustle and Flow Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Terrence Howard in "Hustle and Flow"

Director: Craig Brewer
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: English
Opens Aug. 12, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

There's only one big difference with "Hustle and Flow": It's a much, much better movie. Reason being that with Howard, director Craig Brewer has a lead that can gain an audience's sympathy. Howard can act badass when he wants to, but for the most part he exudes a sly, slightly sleazy charisma that quickly has you rooting for him. 50-Cent, despite his efforts, showed all the charisma of a cinder block; having built a career on attitude, and having cultivated the blank poker-face of a gangsta, it seemed like he never figured out that wouldn't work on film. Howard schooled Cent in "Get Rich," and "Hustle" only continues the lesson.

"Hustle" moves away from the East Coast urban jungle of "Get Rich" to give us the seedy underbelly of Memphis, a region which is currently the rage in hip-hop, known as the "dirty South."

Howard's character, D-Jay, is a cheeba-smoking pimp with three women on his hands. Unlike the monogamous rappers of "8 Mile" and "Get Rich," D-Jay steers closer to hip-hop hyperbole, literally rolling in ho'-s. Living with him in one cramped apartment are fiery stripper Lex (Paula Jai Parkes) and her child, white-trash hooker Nola (Taryn Manning, "8 Mile"), and the temporarily retired Shug (Taraji P. Henson), who's very pregnant. Needless to say, our protagonist D-Jay has his hands full.

D-Jay spends his days selling weed, picking up Lex at the strip club she dances at, and whiling away the time in a parked car pimping Nola, who shakes her hot-panted rear at the "tricks," the creepy men who cruise by looking for quick sex.

Making ends meet is hard, and when D-Jay bumps into old high-school buddy Key (Anthony Anderson), who's now a recording engineer, D-Jay enlists his help in putting together a home-studio and demo. Hip-hop is his dream, and he thinks he's got the stuff.

Along with Key comes his church friend, Shelby (D.J. Qualls), a keyboardist and drum programmer who also happens to be white. The recording session sequence is great in the way it breaks down the cliched image of who makes hip-hop: you've got a skinny white kid and portly family man laying down the tracks, while the sexy R&B vocal hook is added by Shug, looking anything but bling in her housedress and frazzled hair. The best bit comes when church-going Key complains about D-Jay's stereotypical chorus, which goes "smack that bitch!" Key pleads, "If you could say anything, what else would you say?" D-Jay thinks, then suggests "stomp that ho'?"

D-Jay has to move beyond this attitude before he finds success, which turns out to be entirely due to the women in his life. One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the complex relationship between D-Jay and his women. Not sexual or romantic, but not strictly business either, so it's hard to describe. "Partners in crime" serves best. Still, one would like to know more of what the women are thinking -- in this hip-hop universe, they live to support their man, and we have no access to their inner selves.

After several failed attempts, the boys finally manage to cobble together a demo in their little, egg-carton-lined studio. The plan is for D-Jay to drop it on local-rapper-turned-superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) when he visits his hometown for a Fourth of July party. Problem is that Skinny turns up with an attitude the size of Angelina Jolie's lips. The little guy enjoys playing gangsta, with his entourage of heavies to back him up. (And Ludacris is perfect in this parody.) D-Jay, however, used to a pimp's lifetime of smooth talk, is sure he can hustle this sucker as well, until . . . let's just say a little dis' goes a long way.

"Hustle and Flow" evokes a strong feel for its milieu: little details, like how D-Jay's house has electric fans, not air-con, or the girls' banter in the strip-club locker room, convince you the film knows what it's talking about. The music, too, is slamming: the two tracks on D-Jay's demo, "Whoop That Trick" and "Ain't it Hard for a Pimp," could be dropped on any club dance floor. It's a shame this one will only be a one-screen late-show, while "Get Rich" opened wide. Whereas the better-known 50-Cent served up unadulterated gangsta rhetoric -- his childhood dream was owning a gun and a flash car -- "Hustle and Flow" doesn't seek to glorify the street or gangsta values; D-Jay dreams first and foremost of a musical career, then probably an air-con.



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