Belly (1998)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Urban Drama, Crime Drama  |   Release Date - Jan 1, 1998 (USA)  |   Run Time - 110 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Brian J. Dillard

The whole trend of video-turned-movie directors has earned a lot of griping, despite such cinematic pleasures as Fight Club, Adaptation, and, arguably, Charlie's Angels. Perhaps this debut feature from hip-hop promo-clip helmer Hype Williams is partially to blame. A visually intoxicating, but otherwise baffling, film, Belly relies on extensive voice-overs to compensate for its narrative incomprehensibility. Early on, the narration introduces characters who have so many alternate names and nicknames that, when their actions are reported rather than dramatized later on, it's sometimes hard to tell what happened to whom. The actual pictures on the screen don't help much; beautiful as these alternately gritty and glitzy shoot-outs and love scenes are, they fail to tell a compelling or even coherent story. The plot, about thugs grappling with the decision of whether to go straight and become responsible, romantic partners and parents, is a tertiary concern. Priorities one and two are gorgeous shot compositions and detailed, color-saturated cinematography. Rappers/actors DMX and Nas are convincing enough in their boys-in-the-hood roles. But Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of top-selling girl group TLC gets stuck in the underwritten role of a gangsta girlfriend who follows a strict "don't ask, don't tell" policy in regards to her man's livelihood, but ultimately urges him on a spiritual journey to, you guessed it, Africa. The film's central theme, if one digs enough to find it amidst the showy editing and Tarantino-lite set-pieces, involves the quest for convenient redemption amongst thugs who have attained the good life and want a little peace and quiet. But the options available -- an escape to the Motherland or the embrace of the evangelical church -- arrive only in the final reel as twin deus ex machina. One gorgeous sequence, set to the eerie Brit-soul classic "Back to Life" by Soul II Soul, proves that Williams' facility for setting images to music remains undiminished. It's just those pesky stories he seems to have trouble handling.