Since Cinemascore began operation in 1979 only 14 films, give or take, have received the (second) lowest score. In this series I’ll be reviewing some of those films. This week, the meteoric rise and meteoric fall of screen legends Pras and Ja Rule.
So What is it?
Turn It Up is a 2000 urban melodrama following a talented young musician named Diamond (played by mediocre musician Pras Michel in his big screen debut) who is struggling to cut a demo and escape the ghetto.
Diamond’s got all the problems aspiring musicians tend to have when they’re trying to escape the ghetto. He’s got a beautiful and freshly pregnant girlfriend who he’s going to lose if he doesn’t start treating right. He’s got a mother who dies moments after being introduced, and an absentee father who’s back to make amends. He’s got studio fees he can’t keep up with. And most of all he’s got a good-for-nothing nihilistic hot head best friend that keeps dragging him deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld.
Diamond and his nihilistic hot head best friend Gage (played by Ja Rule also making his big screen debut) support themselves by making drug runs for local crime lord Mr. B (Jason Statham, a relative veteran here who’s merely making his American film debut). This is a particularly lucrative side hustle since all of Diamond and Gage’s drug runs result in double-crosses that they need to shoot their way out of, leaving them with both the cash and the dope and remarkably little concern about the police. I guess why bother arresting the guys who are single handedly wiping-out the entire New York City drug trade?
The plot follows the way plots do when aspiring musicians try to escape the ghetto. Diamond struggles with his art and begins to shift away from Gage’s orbit and towards healthier relationships with his father and girlfriend. Gage steals some money, without knowing it belongs to Mr. B, and uses it to finance Diamond’s album. And when Mr. B finds out, he tries to claim Diamond’s album as repayment. There’s a big shootout and everybody, and I mean everybody except for Diamond and his girlfriend, die.
So Why D Minus?
The trailer sold it as an action thriller when it’s actually a very restrained drama. It’s also a bit light on music, considering the subject matter.
So Were they right?
At its best this movie almost has a Michael Mann-ly quality to it. Slickly shot, coolly sensual, with sharp clothes, deep intimacy, unspoken bonds. A plot that is generic, both in its overuse of cliches, but also its basic straightforward dependability. And a very strong supporting cast. It is a movie that aspires towards the iconic, while still being rooted in a rough-edged emotional reality.
Unfortunately, neither of the lead actors are capable of carrying a film. Pras in particular is unable to make an unsympathetic character like Diamond engaging. Diamond doesn’t really care about anything. Whether it’s committing a half dozen murders, or watching his mother die, or finding out his girlfriend is pregnant, reuniting with a father he hasn’t seen in decades, getting offered a record deal, or finding out his best friend has been ripping off the mob, Diamond reacts with unwavering indifference. Even his music is empty. He’s not trying to express anything about himself, his upbringing, or his culture. It isn’t an escape for him. It’s just a job.
The plot is also a bit disconnected from itself. Diamond’s father, girlfriend, and Gage never interact with each other. The initial shootout doesn’t lead to a police investigation or a rival gang retaliation. Plot lines don’t intersect with each other. Nothing builds tension. Nothing has any weight. And the movie is never quite sure if it wants to be about a dope-ass gangsta or a starving artist. So sometimes Diamond’s getting kicked out of the recording studio because he’s short on cash, and other times he’s living large in the club. It makes it hard to track what’s at stake and what’s motivating the characters. Which makes it hard to care about what’s going on. Despite the movie having a fair amount of incident, it has almost no narrative momentum.
These are always the most disappointing movies because there is clearly talent involved, and clearly effort involved, and the movie just doesn’t work. Sure, D, but I’d love to see a director’s cut.