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Tom Tangney

Spike Lee’s new movie ‘Chi-Raq’ is an outrageous mess

In "Chi-Raq" Samuel L. Jackson serves as the Greek chorus in this contemporary remake of the Aristophanes classic 411 BC comedy "Lysistrata." (AP)

I’m sure it’s meant to be an outrage, but whether the “mess” part is also intentional is an open question. In the end, Spike Lee has made a brave, ambitious, energetic and even inspirational flop. Cult status is beckoning.

What is clear is that Lee is absolutely furious and he can barely contain his anger. Sometimes you do your best work when you’re spittin’ mad &#8212 and sometime you do your worst. In “Chi-Raq,” Lee does both.

“Chi-Raq” is the combination of “Chicago” and “Iraq;” as the trailer puts it: Homicides in Chicago, Ill. have surpassed the death toll of American Special Forces in Iraq.

In “Chi-Raq” Samuel L. Jackson serves as the Greek chorus in this contemporary remake of the Aristophanes classic 411 BC comedy “Lysistrata.”

The original Lysistrata convinced the women of ancient Greece to refuse sex until their men settled the Peloponnesian War once and for all. Spike Lee’s Lysistrata does the same thing to end the gang wars in contemporary Chicago, pointed out for its constant violence in the streets.

“I will deny all rights of access or entrance,” chants the women in “Chi-Raq.”

It’s an absolutely inspired idea; as bold and ambitious as any film this year.

Applying the outlandish premise of 2,400-year-old comic fable to the mean streets of southside Chicago takes nerve, and Lee doesn’t flinch. In fact, he doubles down aesthetically. And boy, is it jarring. Much of the movie’s dialogue, for instance, is in rhyming couplets.

For example, one women from the trailer: “Everybody here got a man banging and slanging, fighting for the flag, risking that long zip of the cadaver bag. All to the bang, bang,.”

And although not strictly a musical, there are a number of strong musical scenes &#8212 some dramatically powerful, like the opening rap song.
Other numbers are mined more for their comic potential, like the R&B songs the frustrated men aim at their denying partners

But making daring stylistic choices is one thing. To do so inconsistently raises problems. The tone of “Chi-Raq” varies so wildly that it’s ultimately self-defeating.

The film lurches from raunchy sex jokes to sermons against our gun culture, from pointed political sarcasm to heartfelt expressions of a mother’s grief, from crude, lowbrow humor to smart, incisive satire.

This clashing variety would be all well and good if the individual scenes were independently top-drawer. But for the most part, they are not. The sex jokes aren’t that funny, the sermons are belabored, and the sarcasm is heavy-handed.

Ultimately, this hodgepodge approach would be forgiven if the film could deliver on the dramatic promise of its finale &#8212 when the final confrontation between the lead gangbanger and the aggrieved women plays itself out. Unfortunately, it falls flat because nothing in the film seems to support it.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

About the Author

Tom Tangney

Tom Tangney is the co-host of The Tom and Curley Show on KIRO Radio and resident enthusiast of...everything. As the film and media critic on the Morning News on KIRO Radio, he espouses his love for books, movies, TV, art, pop culture, politics, sports, and Husky football.


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