Cuba Gooding Jr., Omari Hardwick

  2 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

What's happened to Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s career?

Does winning a supporting actor Oscar automatically condemn an actor to obscurity? Ask the immortal George Chakiris, Haing S. Nor, or Brenda Fricker. Yep. It looks like "Linewatch" is going to push Gooding further down the frickin' road to obscurity alongside Brenda. In "Linewatch," Gooding plays non-nonsense border cop Mike Dixon, a devoted family man. In a previous life he was "Mad Dog" Dixon, a deadly L.A. gangbanger. Even though he's lording over a vast, desolate and sleepy expanse of the U.S./Mexican border, far away from L.A., you can bet anybody two Gila monsters and a cactus cocktail the plot centers around his past catching up with him.

Dixon and his overanxious partner, Luis DeSanto (under utilized Omar Trujillo), come across a van of nine dead men, women and children who tried to sneak across the border. The pair begins a pursuit of the "coyote" (broker/dirtbag) that arranged the ill-fated attempt. The subplots -- the pursuit of the coyote, the hassles and dangers faced by the border patrol, and the confrontation between border crossers and vigilantes posing as homemade homeland security would have made a much better picture. Instead, we get a weary drug smuggling plot dressed up as something new because the bad guys are fish out of water inner city black gangstas making a drug deal in the desert.

Dixon and Luis track their "coyote" travel agent to a trailer. Luis offers to rush the door and gets a chest full of lead for his enthusiasm. Dixon plugs two heavily armed dealers who suddenly lose their ability to shoot straight when he they fire at him. The remaining reprobate, a razor thin, skitterish black man with jagged teeth, escapes from the side of the trailer. Dixon and the dealer in need of a dental plan lock eyes, but neither one fires. Whaaa?

Well, it doesn't take long to find out why. When Dixon steps out of the shower the next morning, he's confronted by his former gang bangin' buddy Kimo (a reptilian Omari Hardwick). Kimo calmly makes a proposal... help us slip a shipment of drugs across the border, or we'll kill your wife and daughter. Kimo has brought a motley gang of mokes along, including bear-like Stokes (mild-tempered Amg) and Cook (comical Maleik Staughter), the same stick man Dixon locked eyes with at the trailer. Much to Dixon's dismay, his nephew, "Little Man" (what, they couldn't give the kid a real name?) is part of the troupe of transplanted toughs. He's a probie hoping to perpetrate some deviant act that'll make him a full time member of the gang. And no, you don't win a free trip to a trailer park if you figure out Little Man is going to have to make his bones by getting rid of his blood.    

"Linewatch" degenerates into a struggle for Little Man's soul with "Mad Dog" and Kimo vying for psychological control of their post-pubescent puppet. In between there's animosity between a group of rednecked desert rats masquerading as a version of a citizen staffed homeland security, which berates and beat a group of border crossers. The scruffy self made militia doesn't fare as well when they try to disrupt Kimo's deal with some heavily-armed local hombres.  

The rest of the plot is as familiar as a "Starsky and Hutch" rerun and less original. Blackmail, drugs, thugs. Altruistic hero, villain as vain as Nero, accomplices with I.Q's of zero.

Kimo and his cohorts would have a hard time scaring Spanky, Alfalfa and the other juvenile members of "Our Gang," let alone a real assemblage of assassins. They act more like a laid back group of cricket players out for a Sunday drive rather than a hardened bunch of thugs from L.A. toughest streets.

Before he helps Kimo cop his kilo in the desert, Dixon goes into the precinct office and photographs the other cops' patrol routes and work schedules. It's the perfect opportunity to tell his Captain he's being blackmailed and his family is being held captive. Since they're the police, you might think they'd be pretty good at sneaking around undetected and could bust Kimo and his Keystone criminals without firing a shot. But Dixon decides to go it alone. Credible? Nah, but I suppose this wouldn't be much of an action flick if Mad Dog's selfless, stupid bravery made sense.

Gooding's acting is borderline. There's no explanation how his character earned the nickname "Mad Dog." Did he eat a bar of soap before knocking off a bodega and froth at the mouth as he was looting the cash register? Did he get bitten by a pit bull and bite back? Get rabies from some bad Spam? So, without a defined past, Gooding is forced to imitate a border patrol Bruce Willis - he's a determined, single-minded, mostly silent hero. Show me the money, Cuba! It's another case of a credible actor forced to push his talents to the point of absurdity because of a borderline script.

The rest of the cast is made up of rookie actors -- and it shows, but Omari Hardwick's slick turn as hip hop ringleader Kimo bears watching. He's not your typical insane inner city idiot who ices his foes indiscriminately. Hardwick slithers into scenes, smiles slyly and speaks with steely resolve, seldom raising his voice. He won't hesitate to shoot you in the head, but he'd rather play head games. His Achilles heel is the joy he takes in torturing Dixon by flaunting his hold he has over Mad Dog's nephew. As the movie marches on, Kimo seems to lose points off his I.Q., falling for the old let the underling kill the hero bit (which never works). He's let down by the stale script, but Hardwick deserves credit for not playing a New Jack criminal caricature.

Snaggle-toothed, slight and stoopid, Malieek Straughter (Cook) is the film's malevolent comic relief. His foil, stocky, studious Stokes (Amg) is "Linewatch's" passive comic relief. The two play off of one another like a hip hop version of Laurel and Hardy, trading ad-libbed quips. Straughter infuses Cook with a multitude of personality traits; he's uneducated, a conniving coward, yet can hold his own in a verbal joust and talks a convincing game. You get the feeling the actor put a lot of himself into the role. Amg admits in the extras that he did - he patterned Stokes after a number of thugs he knew in the hood. Nice job of research, Amg. Can we get you a last name?

The rest of the cast is as stable as a desert tumbleweed. Evan Ross ("Little Man") comes off more as a man becoming a boy than vice versa, and is too fresh faced and suburban for the role. When he talks about gangbangin' and poppin' a cap in someone's posterior, he sounds like he just stepped out of a finishing school instead of a threatening thug who just skipped reform school. Sharon Leal (Angela Dixon) plays role of the tough black woman like a desert Bonnie Parker, slapping Cook, dissing Kimo and going Rambo when her daughter is threatened. She's too soft around her husband and too much of a maternal grizzly bear when threatened; there's no balance -- so she's more of a chess piece than an actress. Dean Morris (Warren Kane) adds some stability as Dixon's Captain, but like Dixon's partner, Luis, he's not on screen long enough. It's a particular shame that Omar Trujillo's Luis is knocked out of the picture early - Dixon has more of a rapport with Luis than he does with his wife, and their bantering has all the friendly elements of partners who know, respect, and rely on one another. Luis gives Dixon's character his sense of humanity. Without Luis, Dixon's a desert Rambo.

More Line to Watch...The Extras

"Linewatch's" extras are brief, but worth taking in. The extras include "Crossing Borders: Behind the Scenes if Linewatch," with casual comments from producer Bard Krevoy, writer David Warfield, director Kevin Brag and the actors. Gooding's stunt double offers revealing inside info on how the fight scenes were staged, and has an amusing cache of stories from his fifteen years as the man who takes his lumps for the star. Gooding relates an amusing tale of having visitors to the set think he was a real border patrol officer, and Straughter's story involving a door knob and his own on the set intensity will leave you laughing.

The plot may be lukewarm, but the cinematography is hot. "Linewatch" was shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the colorful mesas and long single-lane highways add to the film's sense of loneliness and lawlessness. And let's face it; most cop stories take place in L.A. and New York City, home to sky scrapers and homies. "Linewatch" is set in the forgotten land of double-wides, sagebrush and poverty stricken Native Americans, which may not make it exciting, but does make it different, no country for good men with no budget.   

"Linewatch" clocks in at an economical 86 minutes. Despite nice turns by Hardwick, Straughter and Amg, this isn't a movie you need to stand in line to watch. Wait for it to come to cable.



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