The new millennium is dawning, and urban America continues to reel from the social diseases infecting population centers for 40 years. Its best and its brightest too often give in to criminal temptations and wind up in jail. Money, power and sex beckon, addictions flourish, families disintegrate and preachers preach to unhearing ears.
Hype Williams, an acclaimed video director who has worked with Sean "Puffy" Combs, LL Cool J and others, simultaneously illuminates the lure of the street and the spiritual crises of the modern age in "Belly." It's a grim and poignant debut feature driven by the charismatic, impressively drawn performances of its rap and R&B stars.
Williams, directing from his own script, employs an off-kilter visual flair that charges the film from the start, as a rapid-fire succession of images from the thug life is accompanied by a voiceover confession, told in rhyme: "I sold my soul to the devil. The price was cheap."
The montage is followed by a remarkable sequence that's riveting if consciously showy. A group of gangsters, shot in slow motion and photographed so that their eyes appear to be glowing green, go on a murderous robbery spree at a popular nightclub. Jump cuts, a strobe light, brutal attacks and moments of stark silence add to the chilling effect.
"Belly," which takes a cue or two from Martin Scorsese's tragic underworld sagas, centers on longtime crime partners Tommy (multiplatinum rapper DMX) and Sincere (lyricist Naz), homeboys from Queens crafty enough to profit from their drug deals. Both drive pricey cars and live comfortably on their ill-gotten earnings. The impulsive, ambitious Tommy shares gleaming, spacious all-white digs with his voluptuous girlfriend Kisha (singer/actress Taral Hicks), while the introspective, thoughtful Sincere lives in a more modest home in the old neighborhood with his wife, Tionne (T-Boz of TLC), and their infant daughter Kenya.
The friends' alliance begins to crumble precisely at the moment that Tommy learns of a new, more potent variety of heroin now making its way into hip-hop clubs and raves. "Ain't no money like dope money," he tells his pal, who's increasingly resistant to their dangerous trade.
Tommy forges ahead with his plans for an interstate drug ring, hooking up with Jamaican-born Queens drug kingpin Lennox (Louie Rankin, with a thick Island-accented dialogue practically requiring subtitles) for a product-connection trip to Kingston. The initial success of the venture is demonstrated through a split-screen segment that's nearly a satire of one of those industry-of-business short films. Meanwhile, other members of Tommy's gang, operating on location in Omaha, are nabbed by cops after a tip-off by local dope honcho Big (Tyrin Turner).
"Belly," turning gloomier by the moment, then begins to chronicle the major characters' fall in the wake of their self-destructive rise. The once invincible Lennox is attacked, and the captured Tommy makes a dirty deal with a federal agent (Frank Vincent). Sincere digs deeper into the writings of Elijah Mohammed and grows desperate to remove his family from their environs.
The film, pumped up with a soundtrack that ranges from the Delta blues and jazz of Olu Dara to the hip-hop and R&B of the movie's actors and the likes of Soul II Soul and D'Angelo, lets down only with its somewhat heavy-handed conclusion.
Tommy, embroiled in a plot to assassinate a spiritual leader (Benjamin Chavis) who has gained the younger man's respect, is forced to make a crucial decision on New Year's Eve of 1999. "Will you choose the life over the darkness?" he's asked. Redemption, in Williams' view, is an option for even the most unrepentant of sinners.