Those who were fans of the 1990s police drama “New York Undercover” will remember the series being just as popular for its sense of style and cultural influence as it was for its story lines. While wondering if Detectives Williams and Torres would solve their case each week, the equally urgent question was who the new love interest or musical guests would be. The series leads were not only clever detectives able to navigate the gritty streets of New York, but like all the best cop characters, they were also the kind of guys you wouldn’t mind having a drink or watching the game with. This is the same flavor that writer-director Reggie “Rock” Bythewood brings to “Gun Hill,” which he describes as a distant cousin to the series he wrote and produced until 1997.
BET recently gave “Gun Hill” the “Being Mary” Jane treatment, with an original feature film presented at Urbanworld Film Festival, laying the groundwork for a possible TV series. The movie stars Larenz Tate as Bird, an ex-convict who returns to the Bronx and tries to escape his shady past by assuming the identity of his deceased twin brother Trane (also played by Tate), who just happens to be a cop working for the DEA.
Usually the “good twin/evil twin” plot is tricky to pull off seamlessly, and here there’s an uncomfortable opening exchange between the two estranged brothers, apparently to tell us who’s who and give everyone’s backstory. It’s almost as if the film can live without these opening scenes, and perhaps did at one point, until someone supposed that maybe audiences “wouldn’t get it.” But we soon learn that this is all a set up to get to where Bythewood really shines, in delivering the twists and turns of the cop drama itself. The premise of Bird living as Trane under the threat of being discovered, and uncovering secrets about his brother’s life along the way, makes for great suspense and sets up an intense moral dilemma to carry throughout the story. From there we follow Bird’s new adventures as a cop, plotting drug busts and fighting off bad guys, with occasional narration giving his inner dialogue and connecting him back to his twin.
It’s easy to see why Larenz Tate was cast in this role, as he demonstrates equal parts street savvy, humor, and likability in the conflicted character of Bird. His scenes with Aisha Hinds, who steals the show as a badass drug kingpin, alone are worth the watch and beg the question of what deviltry the pair will get into next. Emayatzy Corinealdi also appears as Bird’s ex, balancing the tone of the film with her trademark softness and vulnerability.
Another highlight is the cultural commentary threaded throughout “Gun Hill,” from naming its main characters after legends of jazz, to the film’s take on why and how drugs make their way into black communities, to the 52 Blocks technique used in Tate’s fight scenes, which evolved from the tradition of black prize fighting.
Photography is straightforward with an intentional darkness adding to the tone throughout. The project apparently has been a long time coming, as we’ve covered it since production took place back in 2011. While it will be nice to see it give the audience a little more credit with less exposition and narration, “Gun Hill” is wholly entertaining and it will be great to see it go to series. With all the romantic comedies and reality programming vying for black audiences’ attention, having a solid police drama like this on television will be a refreshing change.