One part treatise on the power of dance, one part paint-by-the-numbers rom-com, one part crime drama and entirely, unexpectedly bonkers, Nick Cannon’s latest directorial outing “King of the Dancehall” giddily and greedily blends tropes and tricks into an amusing if deeply uneven romp set to the throbbing tones of Jamaican dancehall music. Cannon pulls quadruple duty on the film, serving as director, screenwriter, producer and star in a feature that happily blends together plotting that wouldn’t be out of place in either a “Step Up” feature or a shoddy “Scarface” knockoff. And while the sum of its parts are never as energetic as its base components, there’s an unmistakable charm to whatever the hell it is Cannon is trying to do here.
As Tarzan Brixton (don’t worry about the name, it will be endlessly mocked and never explained), Cannon stars as a Brooklyn boy only recently out of prison — five years for attempted robbery — and while he promises his mother (an initially unrecognizable Whoopi Goldberg) that things will change now that he’s out of the clink, he soon launches a plan to make some cash that involves getting on the wrong side of the law all over again. Tarzan is unapologetic about his work as a “hustler,” and Cannon’s charisma is often just enough to keep Tarzan likable enough for audiences.
Tarzan sets off for Jamaica with a stack of American money in his pocket, determined to turn it into Jamaican marijuana and make a pretty penny while doing so. It’s a fine enough plan, but one thrown into almost immediate disarray when his cousin (a wonderful Busta Rhymes, nailing Jamaican Patois with so much ease that the film requires subtitles when most of its Jamaican characters are speaking), a local DJ, introduces him to the dancehall ecosystem that fuels so much of the island’s contemporary culture. Initially dismissive of the dancing — what kind of gangster dances? in Jamaica, it’s all of them — Tarzan soon falls for both the lifestyle and the literally able-bodied Maya (Kimberly Patterson, a breakout talent in her first on-screen role).
“Asses are everywhere,” Tarzan tells us in one of the film’s many voiceovers, breaking down the most prevalent appeal of the dancehall during one of the film’s most energetic (and likely its best) sequences. The film excels when focused on the dancehall and its social strata, and Cannon’s story would do well to stay focused on the colorful, wild and aurally pleasing world that Kingston’s dancehall culture offers, but the budding filmmaker insists on packing his feature ever tighter with dueling interests and elements.
Stylishly slick and in possession of more than a few stunning shots (Jamaica certainly makes it easy enough, but Cannon and cinematographer Luis Panch Perez find real gems throughout the feature’s run), the film keeps up high energy even as things go increasingly flat-footed.
Despite his new love for dancing — one that the film glosses oddly over, thanks to a single montage dedicated to teaching the newbie how to move and a time jump that picks up six months later, after Tarzan has started ostensibly ruling his new universe, completing with perhaps the year’s most eye-popping sartorial makeover — Tarzan can’t stay away from his love of hustling. (As a related aside, if there’s one problem with his filmmaking that Cannon could and should fix ASAP is a loose grasp on the passage of time, whole chunks of the film slip by with little regard for keeping a coherent timeline in effect.)
As his dancing stock increases, so does his stake in the drug dealing underbelly of this newly adopted home. By its second half, Cannon’s seemingly straightforward rom-com dance movie veers wildly (and jarringly) into unexpected territory, awkwardly trying add in psychological horror and crime drama to its already very fun formula. The result is a film that, in hokey dance metaphor parlance, simply can’t stay on the beat. Cannon’s charm is real, as his affection for Jamaica and its dancehall culture, but in trying to pack his own cinematic trunk with all sorts of entertaining junk, his bouncing film simply can’t keep with a once-gyrating pace.
“King of the Dancehall” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.