Monday, April 18, 2016

Barbershop: The Next Cut (2016)

You know, when you really think about it, Ice Cube, at his technical, cinematic apogee, is an unsung hero in the field of minimalist veracity. Hell, look at his acting style. He barely seems like he's even breaking a sweat. He wanders through his scenes as if he's just going through the motions of his daily regimen. He never seems to let his guard down or offer any hint of external emotional fragility. He's just Ice Cube, complete with his sinister sneer he always dons, yet these inadequacies only make him more charismatic, fluid, authentic. As a producer and writer, his signature style is much more polished and finely-tuned.

With Friday, he, alongside DJ Pooh, wrote a riotous, infectious comedy with bare-bones resources. Centered on a single day, he injected his script with a crass, chill edge and a glut of energy, without any alterations to his style, thus defining the new era of urban comedies. With Barbershop, under his production company, Cube Vision, he had not a credit on that film, besides acting. Yet, his distinct handle was pervasive. Sure it featured a lot of clunky, expository dialogue and it wasn't exactly surprising, as far as where the path ended, but the path itself was. While most urban comedies revolved around superficial gimmicks and stereotypes, Barbershop's core was the camaraderie and the seamless conversations which, while seemingly exaggerated and too well-timed, still had an ambience that conjured up actual conversations. Ice Cube's essence in film is simplicity, which is revealing, coming from someone who brought us some of the most hyperaggressive, incendiary music ever made.

However, he never seems to have an steely grip on sequels, which proved to persist with the release of Barbershop II, where realism was sacrificed for diluted, predictable, safe, TV style-tropes and an excessive sentimental streak. It felt more like a corporate product with every nuance and line of dialogue timed like clockwork to cash in on Barbershop's success. And that was his good sequel, mind you. So, the next installment, released 12 years after the first sequel, certainly had every reason to fail. So, how come this film is not only the best sequel Ice Cube had a hand in making, but also the best of the Barbershop franchise? Why, oh why?

The film brings us back to Calvin's Barbershop, located in the South Side of Chicago. Since the second film, Chicago has seen a notable increase in gang violence. This doesn't provide anyone with any sense of security, even for an area where there was none to begin with. Calvin (Ice Cube) finds himself struggling with the task of having to raise his teenage son, Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.), in this upheaval. His seemingly only haven is the aforementioned barbershop, which has since become co-ed. However, even the crowning glory he adopted is still faced with tumultuous struggles. The staff unanimously decide to organize a two-day ceasefire event to promote peace, harmony, and well-being. However, Calvin has secret plans to relocate the shop to the North Side. Will the event lead to any change? Will it be a time for a change of location? Will Nicki Minaj's ass escape the woesome confines of the big screen and land comfortably in our laps? So many questions to be answered.

Was this sequel set up for failure? In the theory that we have been awashed with a teeming amount of belated sequels? Yes. With actual context? No. Director Malcolm Lee has experience with saving potential-belated-sequel-disasters (see The Best Man Holiday), as well as a highly in-demand auteur of African-American cinema, but it goes beyond that.

Last year, Ice Cube was one of the six producers of the fervently acclaimed, Straight Outta Compton. That film was aligned impeccably to the issues and turmoil of the present whilst being exuberantly nostalgic about the past. It was both an incredulous outcry and an unmitigated celebration. The same can be said with this film. As I stated earlier, the first two films, while made under Cube's production company, were not produced in any way by him. This time, he is a producer, along with returning producers, Robert Tietel and George Tillman, Jr. While the first two films definitely had an ambiance of Cube, this one has the impassioned care of a man who, at this point, is existing through his past and is both celebrating and reviling both the past and present.  

The elementary conflict is the pertinent violence in Chicago, which has caused the name "Chiraq" to be unfortunately bestowed onto the city. The high volume of teens enveloped in this turbulence transfers on screen to the paranoia of Calvin with his son. His son has a friend, Kenny, whom has a violent history. Given the involvement of gangs in the city, when Jalen gets involved in a fight, Kenny is assumed to be one who ignited the fight. It turns out that one of them is actually planning (will not spoil) to join the Bloods, which reveal a very frightening tenet of the film and reality, in general.

However, as cold and dark as the historical context is, it still manages to be warm with the synergy of the barbershop crew, immediately eliciting moments of the first two films and getting us quickly back in the swing of things. There are several callbacks made to the first two films. Terri (Eve) still whines about men drinking her apple juice. J.D. (Anthony Anderson), while reformed, is still a hustler.

Oh, and might I add, outside of being warm, it is also highly humorous. This is the funniest of the franchise. If I hadn't been attending the film with my father, it would have been more probable that I'd have more carefully taken note of the best. It also takes advantage of the notion that comedy derives from pain, as the films manage to wring some big laughs in the most tense or pensive moments.

Most of the cast is new, but fit in perfectly with the seasoned vets. I already mentioned the insidious bravura of Ice Cube's stilted, one-note acting, but Cedric the Entertainer makes a triumphant and marvelous return as Eddie, the cantakerous, condescending, misogynist old man, who gets some of the film's best moments and Eve brings the sass, integrity, and attitude that enlivened her character, Terri. Rapper Common is amiable as Rashad, Tyga as gangleader Yummy illuminates a collected, controlled menace that surprised me immensely, J.B. Smoove seethes with effervescence as One Stop, Lamorne Morris gives a hypnotically joyful performance as hopeless romantic Jerrod, and Nicki Minaj, while possessing a emotional range that varies from "Mmm yeah" to "Oh no," manages to be quite convincing as...a male-hungry, thick-bodied, ratchet skank. Hey, say what you will, but it is probably the best performance we will EVER get from Nicki Minaj. I mean, if Minaj can go through an entire film talking in her nasally, slurry drawl without being unctuous, it's an impressive performance. And dat ass doe!

The amalgamation of the old and the new characters adds to the richness of the film. Every place has the regulars and the new people, some of whom become regulars, and the cycle continues. I have an investment in these characters. I admire these characters. They're colorful yet relatable. Why? Because no matter if you are in a Metropolitan area or a village with a population of 80, everyone has that Barbershop. Even if you don't have a barbershop, you have a Barbershop. This is Ice Cube's invitation to his Barbershop, thus allowing us to vicariously be promoted from newbie to regular, if we so choose. Though the films may end or stunt in process, the Barbershop will never close because that fundamental essence of unity never dies. While the films opens on images of tragedy, the films closes on images of hope and an optimistic future. That is what the Barbershop is all about. As well, tantalizing us with Nicki Minaj's backside helps too.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four