by Tony Dayoub
Opening tomorrow in a limited number of theaters is LUV, an indie crime thriller that far outpaces the studio release I reviewed yesterday. Like with Broken City, a powerhouse cast led by Common (Smokin' Aces) and Dennis Haysbert (Heat) bring a soulfulness and gravitas to what otherwise might have been your average urban noir. But despite some minor flaws in its structure, LUV is able to transcend its modest budget to become something greater. Without ever falling into empty preachiness, LUV seems to possess a social consciousness that eludes the other film.
This sense of morality may begin with LUV's producer and star, rapper Common. He plays recently released ex-convict Vincent, who's seeking a loan for a new business. His nephew Wood (Michael Rainey, Jr.) aches for his mom, absent for reasons only alluded to at the start of the film. Together Vincent and Wood seek comfort from each other, while each looks to the other for a new role model. For Wood, Uncle Vincent seems like the very example of male authority; "Vincent the Fearless" he labels him in a drawing re-casting his uncle as a superhero. For Vincent, Wood is a talisman representing legitimacy, a self-imposed obstacle that will hopefully restrict him from straying into criminality once again.
LUV comes across as an odd and unlikely cross between two early 90s films that couldn't be more dissimilar. Wood's quest for self-respect in a criminal milieu recklessly introduced to him by his uncle immediately calls Fresh to mind. But believing that the boy's evolution from shy, private school student to hardened, little scammer takes place over the 24-hour-span covered by LUV may be asking too much of its audience. Where LUV really succeeds is in the bond forged between Vincent and his nephew. Vincent and Wood's relationship is strikingly reminiscent of the one depicted in A Perfect World, which asks the viewer to sympathize with an escaped convict who's honestly trying to educate his young, fatherless hostage on how to be a man. But that movie also questions his methods as the escapee subjects the child to life-altering and endangering traumas.
As Vincent, Common displays an astonishing amount of vulnerability, more than one might expect from a rap artist. But even in his music he's always been conscious of the need to provide his fans with an uplifting example. In LUV, his character stresses the need to go legit while the movie taps into his frustration at being unable to escape a kind of institutionalized criminality that may already be too deep-seated to eliminate. At every turn, Vincent goes for the quick and easy way towards clearing a path to his goal, whether it's identity theft in order to obtain a clean record or asking the former crime boss (Haysbert) who once abandoned him to provide him with start-up capital. It's less the mark of a good businessman than that of a desperate one.
New director Sheldon Candis is adept at bringing the best out of his actors, and he has a storied ensemble to contend with, including Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon), Clark Johnson (Homicide: Life on the Street), Lonette McKee (The Cotton Club), Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) and others. Candis also capitalizes on LUV's Baltimore setting to give the film its verisimilitude. But he could use more of his lead actor's contemplativeness. A quick-cutting editing style used to establish the characters at the start of the film works against the thoughtfulness the moody LUV seeks to engender. Telescoping the circumstances of the entire Vincent-Wood relationship into one day likewise asks viewers to take a larger leap than one should. It's a minor problem, though, and one that certainly doesn't stop LUV from successfully and poetically articulating its cautionary tale.
LUV opens tomorrow exclusively at AMC Theatres as part of their AMC Independent program. Look for local listings here.