RIORI Vol 3, Installment 35: David J Burke’s “Animal” (2004)


The Players…

Ving Rhames, Terrence Howard, Chazz Palminteri and Jim Brown, with Wes Studi, Fasion Love, Paula Jai Parker, Taraji B Henson and Beverly Todd.

The Story…

It’s a foregone conclusion that way leads on to way. Violence begets violence. The sins of the father and so forth.

Hardcore, career criminal James “Animal” Allen was destined to be in prison, but not before leaving a legacy of violence behind. The proverbial apple doesn’t fall far. His misdeeds are carried on by his adept son, Darius. With his infamous father behind bars, Darius has keeping up the family business, keeping the neighborhood under tight scrutiny, and keeping the ever-profitable cycle of degradation moving for the next crop of kids.

It’s kinda bad that Animal’s no longer part of the cycle, him being in prison and and all. It’s also too bad he has all the time in the world to think about his misdeeds and what influences they may have had.

Also, it’s unfortunate it means Animal’s gonna have to man up to his stupidity. And face down the man in the mirror, for his son’s sake.

Way leading on to way.

 The Rant…

I’ve got another story to share about the comic book store.

Oh, sh*t. Not again.

*screeching tires peeling out*

Come back. You know I’ve recounted a few times my working in a comic book shop here at RIORI. Keeping it brief for the under-informed, it was a part-time evening gig to score some extra cash and get access to new Marvel titles at a discount. The place has since closed its doors after 30 years of neighborhood funny business, BTW. Hard these days to find a good indie book store—comic seller or whatever—in your neighborhood.

About the neighborhood. My old shop was on the way downtown. “Downtown” in my little burg was code for “trouble.” Meaning, “I’m headed downtown” was followed with an unmentioned “to score smack, guns and/or a little Chinese girl who can juggle.” Good times awaited. I figured that out because now I can get four balls in the air. In one hand. Not necessarily mine.

*fifth ball makes contact with crotch*

Thanks. But the neighborhood my comic spot was at wasn’t that bad a place to be. The shop squatted on the corner of Crip and Blood, and most of the residents turned their stereos down by 2 AM and didn’t turn on their lawnmowers on Saturday before…ever. I’m joshing you. Nice area, really. The houses were pristine row homes dating back to the early part of the 20th Century, most of them well-preserved, even maintained. A kind of loose historical district. Very little litter, and only two blocks from the high school. The shop had a choice location for business, and no surprise quite a few curious teens would step up into our doorway. Just your typical, urban residential neighborhood where nothing much ever happened behind most closed doors.

Right. Most doors. There’s always gotta be that shadowy place where the birds never fly over its roof. I’m not talking, “‘Stay out of the old Jenkins’ place!’ Mother would scold.” You know what I mean. If you don’t, you’re lucky and doubtless living on a street named after a minor president, so here’s what I mean: about half a block up from the Batcave there was this sinister-looking house; neglected aluminum siding, tattered shingles on the roof, busted screens and maybe two or twelve DirecTV dishes sprouting up like mushrooms—never a good sign in my book. They can afford satellite TV but can’t shell out the ten bucks for screen patches. Priority.

In short, uninviting, especially with the cadre of toughs perched on the porch day and night. It looked as if they were on patrol, looking for something. Trouble was the likely culprit. Someone should’ve given them directions Downtown.

Never fear, though. The mountain came to Mohammad soon enough.

We all knew that place was trouble. The neighbors knew. The cops knew. Sure as sh*t the insomniac thugs knew this, too. The grim pall cast over the neighborhood could only get so grey before something broke into the day.

It did, and it wasn’t our semi-annual Green Lantern blowout sale. Three power rings for the price of four! In brightest day!

Key word being “day.” I got the story on what happened one fateful day up the street. Don’t worry, it was on good authority: my boss. The tawdry tale woven took place in a daring, daylight showdown. Concerned neighbors watched out of windows, smartphones at the ready. I was not there. Either I was elsewhere girding myself as ref for the weekly grudge match between a pair of mouth-breathers debating who would win in a fight: Superman or Triple H (my money would’ve been on the Hulk. Y’know, Hogan. No, before, you dolts). It was at my other gig, earning bill payments, and blissfully unaware of the altercation that would soon be smeared all over the front page of our local rag.

Squad cars pulled up with sirens screaming. Cops called out to the thugs, surrender your weapons or else noogies all around. Turns out the entrepreneurs were dealing in contraband guns. Fun, fun, fun. Weapons were drawn on both sides. It was a standoff, cops crouching behind their cars, the dealers defiantly aimed back from the porch. A lot of shouting and potty mouthing. It was inevitable that one of thugs would take aim at the cops. One dumbass did. He would give the pugs what for. He held out his piece on its side—y’know, like the gangstas do in the movies, barrel parallel to the ground—ready to deliver some retribution for his biz being curbed.

The gun jammed. A cop shot him in the shoulder. The rest went quietly after that. No, really. That’s more or less how it ended. The gun jammed. Owie. Surrender. Ambulance. Paddy wagon.

I point out the gun jammed as the f*cking point of this tale. Any ballistics expert can tell you that when you aim a semi-automatic pistol on its side, it will most likely jam. Why? Bullets don’t load right to left, dipsh*t. You might as well be aiming the grip and clutching the barrel. Hell, throwing the damned thing  would do more damage.

So why’d the guy do it, hold the piece all wrong? Well, for one, it sure looks hella cool and intimidating. It’s an extension of the hand pointing an exaggerated, accusing finger. “You wanna piece of this, bitch?” Hard to believe the guy was unaccustomed to handling firearms, considering his chosen profession. His posture before the boys in blue was almost sure to make him a golden oldie.

So what the hell, tough guy?

Wanna know what I think? Sure you don’t. Tough.

I betcha he did it cuz he saw it a movie. One of those gangsta flicks. It looked badass. It looked like he’d mean business. It was how it was done in endless gangsta fantasies. But here’s the rub. You wanna know why it works there but not Downtown—or even near the corner comic mart?

Sure you don’t. Tough. You’re still here.

Because it’s from a f*cking MOVIE. Movies ain’t real, so the truth can be regarded with a certain suspension of disbelief. In Menace II Society, for example, Larenz Tate’s escapades sure do come across a gritty and  hair-trigger, so to speak. But no one apparently told our Emmy award winner with the busted rotator cuff that all that sh*t was acting. What happens in reality is not an extension of what happens in the pictures. That’s a case for insanity. Just cuz you saw some not-real character pull off a not-real stunt with not-real results does not make it not-not-real. Crime in movies is a helluva lot slicker than the clumsy sh*t that happens up on the screen. Our dimwitted Arthur Rimbaud watched one too many John Singleton movies.

Judgmental? Sure. But possibly just a case of life imitating art, I guess.

Sigh. My story—my boss’ story—plays out like a pretty okay example of why you gotta try and steer clear of cliches and worn-out story lines when making a film about crime in the inner city and its consequences.

Huh? What?

Just go with me here. It’s a movie blog, right…?

Sorry, but sometimes crime pays. And crime has been good to The Animal. Very good.

James “The Animal” Allen (Rhames) is as hard as they come. He’s made a career as killer, dealer and sh*ttastic family man. He’s damn good at two of the three. Too bad the third is gonna come bite him in the ass someday.

Unrepentant Animal gets dragged into prison for trumped up/perhaps erroneous charges. Who can tell with a hardcore thug like Allen? No matter now. He’s up the river and pulling hard time, probably never seeing the light of freedom. Or his lost son.

Well, Animal’s lost son is doing just fine. Flourishing, actually. Darius (Howard) gets all grow’d up while his thug daddy languishes. Naturally, he continues the family business of misery, even surpassing Animal’s meager accomplishments. In short, Darius is building an empire of well-paying crime. With a lot of blood on his hands.

Allen knows nothing about this on the Inside. He’s happy to just carry on being violent and a capo to sleazy, unscrupulous Kadassa (Palminteri)—a career inmate who runs the joint like a godfather. Animal know fortune favors the bold, even behind bars. He’ll take any fortune he can find after losing his on the outside.

On the inside, however, there might be another kind of fortune to be found. The kind that grants freedom of the body and the mind.

Former revolutionary and terminal lifer Berwell (Brown) is an educated, principled jailhouse philosopher. Yes, he has killed. And he has burned. But he has never strayed from his scruples, never beyond admitting to culpability to his crimes. Allen finds him a joke at first, all Mr Miyagi with his reading. Berwell sees a lot of himself in The Animal, though—a man of thirty years ago—and takes him under his wing. He advises Allen that to get out of prison and reconnect with his estranged son, he must free his mind first.

Berwell makes James understand that he is not the hindmost n*gger. He is an angry “Negro” blinded by the System, and in turn blinded from what he truly could be capable of. An educated man. A strong man of conscious. A father.

James must soon also realize to be a possible mentor to Darius, whether he can get out or not.

Back to the lowbrow scene out of Boys N The Hood by way of Spider-Man:

I know comparing a cops ‘n thugz showdown to the movies influencing a squishy mind was a bit of a stretch. Okay, 50 miles of bad road stretch. The sh*t that went down was out of a malign ep of Law & Order. All cliches in place. And this was reality. A reality scammed from a TV show, at least in my opinion. But some criminal mimicking bad behavior from a million different hackneyed gangster flicks invites this question: What if a filmmaker picked up on such drivel and translated it to his work (again, even though it was done a jillion times before with better results)? Curiously angled gat and alla dat.

Hey, guess what? Some deranged director actually f*cking did! I kid you not! I mean, what? Sure! Some goofball with a modest budget and a half-baked plot with a message got made. Not sure if this is a common thing or just when the planets align.

Yeah, so Animal was substandard. Predictable story, stereotypical performances from a clutch of (pretty decent actually) actors, style well above substance blah yak yadda. The hell of it is, Animal should’ve been better, sharper, even if only for a moment of synchronicity.

*cue marimba*

I noted Law & Order above. I’ve also dropped that name in a pervious installment of another crime caper with a misguided filmmaker and hack scenarist, The Watcher (shame on you director of Creed videos). That film kinda ran parallel to your standard L&O ep where Logan and Briscoe chase down a crazed murderer. Right, like every other episode; tune in next week.

But did you know this little trifle? Animal director Burke used to write for the original Law & Order back in the 90s! And take this: did you know he directed a fair share of those episodes?!? Fer sure. You’d think a guy well-seasoned like so much beef would know a thing or five about directing a minor film about life and death in South Central. Okay, it ain’t the City, but crime knows no urban sprawl. Well, maybe not Oslo.

Burke really dropped the ball with Animal. He populated the thing with all that sh*t listed above, and apparently did not learn a thing or twenty about what should not be in place for a movie like this. It’s not for his lack of experience, but this was his debut a movie director. Big jump from the small screen. Maybe he simply kept referencing the old playbook as to what to do next with Ving and crew.

It kinda shows. Animal plays like a ghetto Elmore Leonard story, minus the snappy dialogue. All the grittiness is well in place, palpable and even chewy. Unlike one of Dutch’s many colorful novels (and ensuing movie adapts), director Burke only walked away with the standard issues in place. Mostly cribbed from the possible notebook, smearing with sweat, coffee and ink of a thousand stubby, stolen pens for S Epatha Merkerson’s desk (don’t f*ck with the lady who delivered Pee-Wee Herman’s mail, buddy).

Animal was riddled with cliches, a well-worn script and way too many stereotypes. It was coarse, basal and more than a bit cloying. To me, sometimes it feels with movies like Animal the director and/or writer is so determined to get their “street poisoning a la Iceberg Slim” message and feel across to the masses their urgency plows under the need and value of traditional filmmaking: tell a worthwhile f*cking story. And don’t pander, either. Burke missed that stuff, and we ultimately got served an R-rated “After School Special” vibe. We got a message here, dammit! Pay attention kids, and note how the guns are held!

Ahem. Sorry. Gonna be hung up on that thing for a long time. Someone could’ve gotten hurt!

I know I’m slamming Animal pretty bad, almost as basal and coarse I claimed the damned film was. Still, even with the lamest of films I’ve always found some nuggets worth sifting. The acting—though nothing to really blog home about—was straining to be good. All our leads were worthwhile actors, doing their best against a tired, mediocre, caged-from-freshman-year-Shakespeare script and plot. It really shows with Burke’s subtle as a flying mallet moralizing and preachiness.

Rhames as street thug was rather satisfying. It’s understood he’s a walking, talking, shooting boilerplate. Rhames seemed to know this, so he threw himself into the role of Allen with hammy aplomb. The character was a nice example of the man’s being allowed to really dig in, have some dark fun and perhaps catharsis (only later to quietly morph into a reformed con without you really noticing it). It also helped that Ving’s been built like a Mack truck since the womb. The dude’s got himself some presence, and puts that to good use here. Animal’s maybe an amalgam of all the goons Burke concocted for Law & Order, but that makes Rhames no less interesting. His role may be trite, but it was hard to simply dismiss. So good there, Marcellus.

I have a soft spot for Jim Brown. He’s an SU alum, like me, so of course I ended up paying the most attention to him. Again, his Berwell is something out of a warmed-over Huey Newton biopic. All the trappings of a institutionalized philosopher. But like Rhames, Brown has charm, as well as gravitas borne from his post-NFL career (and he’s also built like a concrete walrus). Unlike Rhames, Brown’s presence comes less from his size, but the strong delivery of his lines even though they’re as banal as the rest of the story. Despite his on-the-nose characterization, his calm and tough demeanor is both disarming and earnest. The yin to Animal’s yang, as Burke designed it. Oh, and that’s not Jim Brown acting. That’s Jim Brown.

It was amusing to see Howard work through his salad days here. We all know he goes on to bigger and better things later, but it’s interesting to watch him apply his trade as well as trying to find his voice. His strength in Animal—as well as what would serve him in future roles—is him having the best facial expressions. It is what’s made his career. Doubt me? Check out Mr Holland’s Opus. Really. His mixture of baby face and tight, clipped speech made his Darius quite the paradox. Casual, if not sweet-natured mama’s boy cum cold-blooded killer, following in his nasty father’s shadow. His role was closest in terms of honesty within a standard script, if only in fits and starts. Better some than none, I guess.

Lastly, I’d be remiss in my duties without giving a shout out to Palminteri. A choice character actor of mine, but mostly known for playing mafia toughs and grizzled cops. His “man who knew how to get things”—a sort of malign Red from Shawshank—role was entertaining enough, if only for his scruffy, scabby chewiness. His what served as comic relief in Animal. Sure, it was grey, sleazy humor, and nothing out of SNL either (thank God), but you gotta have a little hot sauce on that stale taco so to shove it down your pie hole. That was all a complement, BTW.

So what have we learned? Never staff a gang yard redemption flick with a TV directer who never turned off the set (double shame/f*cking ironic from the quill of a Law & Order alumnus). Never let decent actors unable to be fully decent. And don’t make another goddam movie like this again. I mean again. It’s been done. It’s been passed, played and in the locker for years now. We get it. Prison sucks, gangs are stupid and destructive, violence begets violence and Jim Brown rocks.

Okay, maybe we can revisit the last thing again.

*cue that weird clank-bell-thud sound effect from Law & Order. One more time, with feeling!*

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Animal was a chunk of marble in desperate need of a few spins in the rock tumbler. It was a retread, cast with cool actors probably frustrated with the…everything they got lassoed into. Bad agents! Bad, bad agents!

Stray Observations…

  • A pleading Ving Rhames is frightening.
  • “No fumar.” Ha.
  • I’m thankfully no expert, but I don’t think conjugal visits permit candles.
  • “You gotta live to get old, brother.” The always sage Jim Brown. Bless him.
  • How’d I know Malcolm X would eventually be brought up?
  • “You look like a burnt marshmallow.” Love is fast becoming one of my have character actors. He and Pena should go golfing.
  • “Tough ain’t sh*t son. It’s about being smart.”
  • …Bars everywhere.
  • “I’ve been waiting for my father to show up for over 20 goddam years. Then you the f*ck show up.” Best line in the whole damned movie. Might as well’ve been the tagline.

Next Installment…

It’s supposed to be Seth Rogen’s job to only Observe And Report any trouble at the mall he secures, not to canoodle with Anna Faris. Especially not Anna Faris.

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