- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

The movie musical remains in limbo, a once-cherished genre relegated to classic cable channels and fond remembrances.

"Snipes," a new crime thriller from music-video director Rich Murray, could be the next logical step in the relationship between film and music. It's a rap song projected onto the big screen, complete with a thumping soundtrack and all the macho posturing of the crudest gangsta record.

Uncompromising, unpolished and unapologetically vulgar, "Snipes" also pulls off a few surprises, enough red herrings to soften its crude storytelling. That is, if you can see the plot through the marijuana haze that hangs over many of the film's characters.

"Snipes'" absence of star power, outside of rap star Nelly, lends the project some verisimilitude.

Mr. Murray grew up in Philadelphia, where "Snipes" is set, and his attention to his hometown's seamier side shows. You won't find heart-tugging shots of the Liberty Bell or other patriotic landmarks.

For all its crude language and deplorable behavior, Mr. Murray's film boasts a rather dense plot that reveals itself in sly and clever ways.

"Snipers," as the movie explains, are workers who canvass urban landscapes, posting advertisements for new hip-hop albums. New ads go up and are torn down with great speed, the images as transitory as some stars' careers.

Young sniper Erik Triggs (Sam Jones III) sees promoting hip-hop as the next best thing to starring in his own music video. He snaps pictures of his handiwork, a patchwork of pride and ambition flickering across his face.

He would rather be on the streets promoting such rising rappers as Prolifik (Nelly) than at home, where his father lives in an alcohol-fueled delirium.

Erik's friend Malik (Mpho Koaho), an aspiring rapper, thinks his own face might grace the advertisements Erik so diligently hangs all over the city. For Malik, rap is a lottery ticket within arm's length. "I ain't got time to be supersizing no fries," he says.

Erik decides to help Malik by sneaking them both into Ill Wax Studios, the label for which Erik does his sniping. Their late-night visit turns disastrous when they find a body left on the studio's floor. Soon, Erik is awash in a murderous plot to manipulate the music charts.

"Snipes" foists on us too many stale plot devices, such as overheard conversations and cars that stall at the most inopportune time, to completely capture our interest.

However, rather than disintegrate as it heads toward its bloody climax, the film's narrative tightens up to reveal its motives. Mr. Murray doesn't telegraph his plot punches, and when they hit, they do so with a satisfying "smack."

The director honed his skills by directing dozens of music videos. Here, thankfully, he doesn't fall back on that medium's overzealous visuals.

He should have employed the same restraint with Dean Winters (HBO's "Oz"), the actor who plays the record producer who crosses Erik's path. Mr. Winters' performance is a parody of the blandest order.

Still, the film hangs on the modest shoulders of Mr. Jones, who since filming "Snipes" has found steady work on the WB's "Smallville" series.

The actor's range remains elusive. He rarely is allowed to express joy or anything other than gritty determination and the ability to survive a number of injustices.

Nelly's role in the film, while pivotal, is smaller than expected. It's faint praise to note that he acquits himself well because he plays a disturbed variation on his rap-star persona.

At one point, Mr. Winters' character is torturing Erik for information. He tells Erik he learned his techniques from watching movies, then proceeds to slit Erik's nostril in an homage to "Chinatown." It's a telling moment because many of the film's nastier moments feel recycled from older, better films.

The street value of a hit rap record is a juicy notion on which to hang a rap thriller. Mr. Murray's "Snipes," though, is like an overheated rap song. It's all bluster and little substance.


**

TITLE: "Snipes"

RATING: R (constant drug use, violence, sexual situations and foul language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rich Murray

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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