Cb4

1993, Movie, R, 83 mins

Review

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The title CB4 stands for "Cell Block 4," but it may as well mean `crash and burn,' because that's what happens to this sputtering satire of modern rap music and Black hip-hop culture. Whether a passing fad or on its way to becoming a fixture in the national consciousness, 90s gangsta rap has made a big impact with its glorification of violence, street gangs and degradation of women, mixed with important themes on desperation, empowerment and the urban African-American experience.

CB4 tries to parody the absurdities and appeal of rap, but it mostly misses the mark with its story of the rise and fall of rap trio CB4, glowering thugs whose angry, vulgar songs of the ghetto delight youthful audiences and outrage conservative censors. Their record company hires a white filmmaker (Chris Elliott) to do a `rapumentary' on CB4, and while stuck in LA traffic, the trio's leader Albert (Chris Rock) tells the admiring nerd the real story behind the band. Albert and his onstage homeboys Euripides (Allen Payne) and Otis (Deezer D) are in fact three nice middle-class boys from the suburbs. Rap music was in their hearts, but they never appealed to audiences until Albert changed his name to MC Gusto, after fearsome club-owner Gusto (Charlie Murphy), and reinvented his combo as hardcore criminals--rappers with a rap sheet--and renamed the group after a maximum-security prison.

CB4 becomes a sensation and a crossover symbol of rage, lewdness and rebellion. But the group itself is torn by dissatisfaction. Euripides falls under the influence of Afrocentric author/guru Baa Baa Ack (Richard Gant) and trades in his gang clothing and style for dashikis and Islam, while D.J. Otis just wants to score with the girls. When the real Gusto sees that the kids from Locash have stolen his name and persona, he escapes Cell Block 4 and scares Albert into splitting up the band. As their solo careers languish, Albert thwarts Gusto with a lame, cross-dressing trick, and a reunited CB4, mellowing their urban-predator facade a little, pounds out a closing number surrounded by adoring fans.

This movie sends mixed signals up and down the dial. One scene, possibly meant as a parody, shows Albert binging on drugs. The rap music biz gets nudged for glorifying violence, but there's a drive-by shooting early on for purely gag effect. Albert's lovely, intelligent girlfriend Daliha (Rachel True) lectures him for lyrics that demean women and others but stands loyally by him even as he publicly cheats on her with sexy groupies. No groupie is sexier than Sissy (Khandi Alexander), who delivers a very discomforting message to other backstage girls that she's better than them because she puts her vice earnings in the bank.

Above all, CB4 just isn't too funny, and one gets the feeling that the filmmakers themselves lacked the resolve or coherence of vision to mock rap in any effective fashion. Subplots begin, then fade, and characters drift in and out of the loose narrative, much evidently winding up on the cutting-room floor--a surprise given that director Tamra Davis' feature debut was the well-modulated film noir GUN CRAZY. But Davis got her start in the less-disciplined environs of music videos, so chalk up this script as a victim of MTV-era attention spans. Only in the CB4 press kit is Baa Baa Ack unmasked as a con artist; onscreen the worst he does is charge $15 for his paperback. Then right-wing politician Virgil Robinson (Phil Hartman, playing Patrick Buchanan), who leads a family-values crusade against CB4, utterly vanishes after a portentious reference to his wife's mysterious death.

Advance word made CB4 into a rap equivalent of the acclaimed rock spoof THIS IS SPINAL TAP due to Chris Elliott's short appearance as a documentarian. Its real soulmate is WAYNE'S WORLD, the equally chockablock comedy that became a surprise hit in 1992. Both pics share maximum youth appeal, celebrity cameos, goofs on early '90s fads--and most of all, rising stars of TV's "Saturday Night Live." Here it's Hartman and star/co-writer/co-producer Chris Rock who claimed to have nurtured the concept of CB4 even before his "SNL" stint and his showy dramatic part in NEW JACK CITY. The gangling, expressive Rock is an undeniable talent, often hilarious in his late-night sketches, but it does not bode well that such a long-gestated project turned out such a mess. Then again, look at CONEHEADS. For "Saturday Night Live" alumni, cinema is an equal-opportunity disappointer.

The cast provides a good display of unfamiliar black screen talent. One notable is Charlie Murphy, big and scary enough to qualify as bodyguard to his superstar younger brother Eddie. The older Murphy has energy to spare as the villainous Gusto, making one hope better-written roles await him. The best moments in CB4, actually belong to real-life rap masters Ice-T (of "Cop Killer" notoriety) and Ice Cube. In an early, seemingly improvised sequence the pair lament that they no longer consider themselves relevant and streetwise--so intmidated are they by ferocious newcomer MC Gusto and his outlaw posse. Ice Cube sports a cap reading "Looters," which was the original pre-L.A. riots title of his violent 1992 film released by Universal as TRESPASS. (Profanity, violence, substance abuse, nudity, sexual situations.) leave a comment

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