Written by: Adam Simon, Tim Metcalfe
Directed by: Ernest Dickerson
Starring: Snoop Dogg, Pam Grier, and Michael T. Weiss
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Dog eat dog, brother."
My fondness for New Line Cinema has been well-documented on this site over the years, and, to this day, I still consider it to be my favorite studio of all-time. When the film strip logo glides onto the screen with that classic, soothing fanfare? That’s the good shit. Obviously, this affection can be traced back directly to A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it’s managed to weave its way through other obsessions, from the Ninja Turtles movies to Mortal Kombat all the way up to its current incarnation as WB’s de facto horror wing. Of course, NLC has always been synonymous with horror: in addition to being “The House that Freddy Built,” the studio has a long history with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Friday the 13th, not to mention homegrown fare like Critters and The Hidden. But arguably the most unsung stretch of the studio’s glory days came at the turn of the millennium, when they churned out an eclectic bunch of genre titles in the shadow of its biggest mainstream success in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hollywood history will likely remember this era as Bob Shaye’s crowning achievement that culminated with the studio taking home 11 Academy Awards; your boy here will always remember it as the era that gave us Final Destination, Willard, and Jason X before culminating with Freddy vs. Jason.
Anyway, it was during this era—and maybe only during this era—that Hollywood saw a space for a ghost story that could be a vehicle for Snoop Dogg. New Line was there to fill this crucial void with Bones, a Blaxploitation ghost story that, if nothing else, is pretty much one of a kind, even if it wears its influences on its sleeve. Sure, we’ve seen vengeful spirits rise from the grave to take revenge before, but how many times have we seen it with Snoop Dogg spitting bars at his victims? Not enough, in my opinion.
Snoop is Jimmy Bones, a hustler and respected community pillar, or at least he was back in the 70s. In the present day, he’s nowhere to be seen, and his block has seen better days. Most of his former associates are either still hanging around, pushing drugs, and mixing it up with crooked cops; however, his close friend Jeremiah (Clifton Powell) managed to escape and build a prosperous life. Unfortunately for him, though, two of his kids (Khalil Kain & Merwin Mondesir) harbor dreams of being DJs and owning a nightclub, aspirations that lead them straight back to the old ‘hood, specifically to a long condemned building where something horrible lurks, holding the key to Jimmy Bones’s disappearance and a long buried secret from Jeremiah’s past.
Putting together all of the pieces is easy enough, but Bones takes the scenic route by blending the present-day action with pivotal flashbacks to the past, eventually arriving at an obvious point: Jimmy Bones's death at the hands of his former associates, including Jeremiah and his lover (Pam Grier), both of whom are forced into conspiring against him when he refuses to pump drugs into the neighborhood. It’s basically a souped-up version of the Elm Street story, only the mystery here doesn’t quite have the same verve or intrigue. Most of the present-day action involves an ominous dog that’s vaguely serving as Jimmy’s emissary and dispatching unfortunate knuckleheads who wander into the house. Meanwhile, the kids looking to fix up the old place remain oblivious, even though the dog has evil fuckin’ red eyes and everyone tells them there’s a reason the old building has stayed boarded up for decades. In that respect, it’s more of a reverse Elm Street because it’s the parents insisting that something horrible might happen while the kids insist on doing their thing and making something of themselves.
But despite that familiar conflict, Bones doesn’t feel like much of a commentary on generational angst, nor is it exactly a nuanced exploration of the inherent racial dynamic. The presence of a crooked white cop orchestrating the long-term, insidious destruction of a black community is certainly potent and still all too relevant, but it mostly amounts to being a plot device. Arguably the most interesting internal strife comes from Jeremiah himself, now embarrassed of his old neighborhood after finding success in the richer part of town. A more interesting film would have him coming to terms with his own self-loathing and denial; Bones is content to make him a permanent fixture in the wall of the baroque H.R. Giger-esque hellscape glimpsed during the climax here. This is, after all, Bones, a movie that largely exists so Snoop Dogg can saunter through the last 30 minutes, taking revenge on his enemies while he says stuff like “I’m on a supernatural high.”
Admittedly, those last 30 minutes do make the entire enterprise worthwhile. It’s here where director Ernest Dickerson harnesses that Demon Knight energy to mold Bones into a vibrant, lively take on this revenge arc. Not content to merely kill some of his enemies, Jimmy rips their heads off and somehow preserves their soul, leading to some zany sequences involving talking, disembodied heads and whatnot. On the whole, it feels like New Line finally breaks open the bank during the climax; where most of the film unfolds within the walls of the old house or the thinly-dressed Vancouver streets, the ending features an elaborate set that looks ripped straight out of the later Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. Hell, even Bones's eventually resurrection resembles Freddy’s return in Dream Master, right down to the assistance of a dog. I am choosing to believe this is Dickerson paying respect to Renny Harlin. Prove me wrong.
I’m guessing New Line’s wildest dreams here might have involved Jimmy Bones becoming their next Freddy, something that obviously didn’t happen. Bones is more on the wavelength of Leprechaun, especially considering both have memorable jaunts in the hood, and, no, this isn’t a criticism. In this house, we recognize Leprechaun in the Hood as one of the best entries in that franchise, so Bones could certainly be evoking worse. The biggest problem is that it just takes a little long for Snoop to appear and do his thing, as the flashback structure turns the movie into more of a haunted house deal for the first hour, complete with the primitive CGI spook-a-blast nonsense that plagued this era. While these effects were never that impressive, they’re even less so now and act as a blight on an otherwise technically sound production. When Bones leans on practical effects, it’s pretty much what you want from a movie with this premise, or, at the very least what you expect: gory, silly entertainment with stylish flourishes that marry the gritty blaxploitation textures with gel-tinted Eurohorror hues as Snoop Dogg carries around severed heads.
Find me another movie where you can say that, and maybe I’ll back off of my defense of Bones. Actually, I probably won’t because I don’t want to imply that this is the dreaded “guilty pleasure.” Far from it: why would a feel guilty about enjoying a movie that’s basically an update of J.D.’s Revenge starring Snoop Dogg, Pam Grier, and Katharine Isabelle? Believe me when I say there are things I’m far more embarrassed about enjoying in 2001, which is why you will never, ever see photos of me wearing Jncos. Also, I absolutely did not own any Korn albums in an ill-advised attempt to impress a girl. Nope. Never happened.
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