Raucous in Rancho
The 1995 film Friday is best remembered as the film that brought actor Chris Tucker to audiences' attention. A modest hit, it would seem an odd choice for a sequel, but Ice Cube -- who cowrote the original with DJ Pooh, as well as produced and starred -- is back with more of the same in Next Friday. The main change this time around is that most of the action takes place in the suburbs rather than in South Central, though other than seeing nicer foliage, you'd have a hard time spotting the differences.
Ice Cube reprises his role of Craig Jones, a young, out-of-work guy who is still living at home four years after the first movie. (Mom seems to have disappeared without explanation.) Nothing much has changed since Craig beat up Debo (Tom "Tiny" Lister, Jr.), the gigantic neighborhood bully at the end of Friday. But word arrives that Debo has busted out of prison in order to seek revenge on Craig. So Dad (John Witherspoon) decides to ship Craig out of town for safety until Debo is caught. It seems that hard-working Dad's good-for-nothing brother, Uncle Elroy (Don "DC" Curry), has won the lottery and moved to a nice house in Rancho Cucamonga.
Craig hangs out with his cousin Day-Day (Mike Epps, basically playing a clone of Tucker's character from the original) and manages to get him in all sorts of trouble -- particularly with the Mexican-American drug dealers who live across the street. (See what I mean about the suburbs versus the city?) It also goes without saying that Debo finds his way to Craig's hideout, and for no reason beyond giving Witherspoon more screen time to do his usual broad mugging, Dad shows up as well.
The first Friday was incredibly meandering; what little plot there was seemed to be an afterthought. Most of the film involved Tucker and Ice Cube sitting around smoking dope. Still, it had the advantage of first-time director F. Gary Gray, who went on to make the vastly superior Set It Off and The Negotiator. Gray at least had a sense of visual style that occasionally goosed up the proceedings. This time Cube has stuffed the story with plot -- possibly in reaction to criticisms of the original's pacing. With the exception of one long dope-smoking scene, something is always happening. Unfortunately all the new plot stuff is way old hat, as though straight from a textbook chapter called "Conflict Drives Your Narrative!" And at times the motivations are either unclear or senseless.
Despite the generally livelier tone, Steve Carr -- like Gray, a music-video director making his feature directorial debut -- isn't as interesting a director. His joke setups and timing are clunky: An early gag about Dad slipping in dog poop is staged for minimum laughs. Cube, who has been dandy in supporting roles, is fairly leaden, though that may simply be the character's sullen personality. And Witherspoon always has been, and still is, grating, seemingly imitating the manner of Tim Moore (the wonderful actor who played Kingfish on TV's Amos 'n' Andy) without gradations. He has his mug-o-matic permanently cranked up to 11.
The most amusing members of the cast are Epps and Jacob Vargas, who plays the top gun in the drug house across the street. Both get to speed-rap continually, and occasional funny lines are buried within their verbal outpourings. It also must be said that both are playing the sort of hoary racial stereotypes that would be patently offensive in isolation, but Cube has made sure that other characters are there to counterbalance them. Whether that really helps will depend on your sensitivities.
And forget about racism. If you're sensitive about sexism, you may have just a bit of trouble with Next Friday. This is a film where one of the good guys pushes Craig toward a liaison with a hefty girl by pleading, "Hey, fat bitches need love, too, Craig."
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