Movie Review: ‘Bodied’ serves unruly-but-intoxicating session of verbal combat
Director: Joseph Kahn
Writers: Joseph Kahn, Alex Larsen
Stars: Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Dumbfoundead, Shoniqua Shandai, Dizaster, Walter Perez, Rory Uphold, Anthony Michael Hall
Synopsis: A progressive graduate student finds success and sparks outrage when his interest in battle rap as a thesis subject becomes a competitive obsession.
No one in this Eminem-produced film utters “I know word-fu.” Being a film about battle rap, this seems like a missed opportunity: It’s a film reference in a universe where that is second language, for starters, and if we stand back a little we’ll spot a male lead who, due to a limited view of his field (poetry, or English lit, in this case), deserves an awakening.
But maybe there’s a reason for the omission. It’s fluff, being fancy when the vibe — 25/8 — is to be as unrefined and as direct as possible. In the cred flows when you go low. And so, Joseph Kahn’s follow-up to his daft 2011 satirical horror Detention is hyper-straightforward in every aspect, resulting in a beat that is frenzied and heady and beastly and lucid. Sounds about right after you get bodied for real, no?
Adam (Calum Worthy), despite much research about battle rapping — he’s working on a dissertation about, yep, how the n-word is used as a poetic device in this environment — definitely didn’t get the “no fanciness” memo in his first trial. Right then, though, he taps into his mental palace — in the form of floating folders that suggest he and Scott Pilgrim might be distant cousins — and conjure them sexist, racist, take-a-hike-PC verses that let one battle rapper one-up the other. Come on, they even floored Behn Grym (Jackie Long), a respected member of the community!
From most of his music videos — such as Britney Spears’ Toxic and Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do — and earlier films, there’s merit in the claim that Kahn will perish if he can’t make his work a breath away from being confrontational. But wise is he when for Bodied he lets the rhymes do that job instead of the visuals. The zaniness and zippiness are still there, though they are dialed down and still secondary to the (absolutely) fighting words.
Speaking of words, only those within the battles are effective. Beyond that, exchanges scribed by Kahn and Alex Larsen (rapper Kid Twist) function in four realms that often upsets the flow — being filler, a deliberate shortcut-taker, humorous enough they operate in a separate plane or — this is true for its taps into race relations — present with the demeanor of a manic boxer who minutes ago downed about a dozen Monster cans. That said, this is how this world works, so your complaints, however valid, will render you as one of those viral “speak to your manager” people or their ilk that are precisely what the film chastises. In that sense, Kahn and Larsen earn this “I can really not care, don’t you know?” card; the film they’re writing for has this Deadpool-like effect where flaws are part of the fabric. Think ripped jeans.
Kudos to the mainly POC cast, however, for finding the right pitch on this slightly overlong and built-from-chaos roller-coaster ride. Whether as a doofus in minute one and then Rap God in minute two, Worthy nails the emotions of the moment. There’s a wish that more time should be spent with Long’s Behn, whose swagger can delightfully chill you. Supporting players/fellow rappers like Prospek (Jonathan Park, or Dumbfoundead), Che Corleone (Walter Perez) and Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) all have their own shining moment, “their own” amplified tenfold. As an ensemble there is still a lot to be desired; the ties that bind the squad members are too insignificant to mention despite many attempts to have us pay attention to it via mentionings and inclusion of an antagonist, Megaton (Dizaster), a battle-rap royalty who’s also a bit too punchy.
And that “get to the top” routine is the only trace of tradition in Bodied, which one can bet it has to welcome with much chagrin. As for the rest? Imperfection is king and attempts to be otherwise is sin, here morals are lice and having them means you’re about to be iced. It’s best to not attempt to take the conn from Bodied at any point — unless the objective is to commit ha-rey-kee-ree (as heard in the film) and deprive yourself from entering the film’s mindset and vice versa (for the latter, the other Oakland-set film Sorry to Bother You also says hello).