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Movie Review

Flashy, Uneven 'Belly' Leads to Unexpected Redemption

November 04, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hype Williams' "Belly" starts its story of lifelong pals turned drug dealers at a provocative point--the pinnacle of their success. Tommy Brown (DMX) and Sincere (Nas) grew up in the projects in Queens, but now live in Long Island splendor.

First Sincere and finally Tommy begin to examine their lives, which is requiring them to take greater risks by peddling increasingly dangerous drugs. (Tommy only acts when he's blackmailed by government agents into attempting to assassinate a charismatic preacher, portrayed by actual minister Benjamin F. Muhammed.)

The entire thrust of "Belly" involves taking the duo on a series of adventures, from Omaha, Neb., to Kingston, Jamaica, which serve to bring about confrontations with themselves.

"Belly" has all the sex and violence of the urban black action genre, but it builds refreshingly and unexpectedly to a spirit of redemption and responsibility. Unfortunately, "Belly" is highly uneven. Williams comes from music videos and knows all about flashy techniques. His sure sense of the visual reveals potential, but he needs to learn to tell a story far more coherently.

His script, from a story he wrote with Nas and Anthony Bodden, rambles and is often heavy-handed in delivering its message. Rap stars DMX and Nas have lots of presence, especially DMX, but both have more to learn about acting. Neither is particularly convincing as a major drug lord. The best performances are by Tionne (T-Boz) Watkins as Sincere's concerned, down-to-earth wife; Taral Hicks as Tommy's gorgeous but bored and neglected girlfriend; and, most notably, by Louie Rankin as a totally believable Jamaican drug overlord who lives in exactly the kind of baronial estate that F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby called home.

"Belly" looks great, thanks to Malik Sayeed's stunning, noirish camerawork, and moves well. Hype Williams now needs to concentrate on wedding style and substance more persuasively.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, language, sexuality and drug use. Times guidelines: The language is extremely strong and pervasive.

'Belly'

DMX: Tommy

Nas: Sincere

Tionne: Tionne (T-Boz) Watkins

Taral Hicks: Kisha

An Artisan Entertainment presentation of a Big Dog Films production. Writer-director Hype Williams. Producers Larry Meistrich, Robert Salerno, Ron Rotholz, Williams. Executive producer James Bigwood. From a story by Anthony Bodden, Nas and Williams. Cinematographer Malik Sayeed. Editor David Leonard. Music Stephen Cullo. Costumes June Ambrose. Production designer Regan Jackson. John Paino. Art director Nicholas Lundy. Set decorator Carol Silverman. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

In general release throughout Southern California.

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