Review: 'Charm City Kings' rooted in authenticity
Courtesy of HBO MAX
Not everyday do we see an acclaimed documentary get the feature film treatment. But Angel Manuel Soto’s riveting “Charm City Kings” - based on “12 O’Clock Boys” - gets the job done. Capturing the freewheeling spirit of Lofty Nathan’s 2013 documentary while putting its own fictional take on Baltimore’s dirt-biker scene, some of “Charm City Kings” familiar elements might not sit well, but it's anchored by a breakthrough performance from Jahi Di’Allo Winston who with a fine supporting turn from rapper Meek Mill, elevate the material.
Presented as a hybrid of “Fast and the Furious” meets “Karate Kid” meets “Boyz In The Hood,” this slight but serviceable adaptation has a ferocious energy, highlighting the thrills of streetlife mixed in with the speed demons who chase after trouble. It’s nothing audiences haven’t seen before, except the emotional tug of war that’s played between the two main characters pays off in the end. You’ll feel much better letting the tears flow rather than holding them back.
“Kings” - which is executive produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith - is first and foremost a coming of age tale, set in the inner city of West Baltimore. We follow the exploits of Myron (Winston) who goes by the nickname “Mouse,” as he traverses the landscape left for him in the wake of his brother's death. He hangs around with his pals Lamont (Donielle Tremaine Hansley) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis) and they often find themselves congregating each Sunday to watch the local biker derbies zip through the streets, performing elaborate stunts and popping wheelies for sport. The kids can’t get enough of it, often staring in awe of what the biker gang is capable of and maybe one day, Mouse - whose only going into eighth grade - will be called to join the ranks.
Raised by a single mom (Teyonah Parris) and his assigned school mentor, a police officer (William Catlett), Mouse is always in the spotlight, pushed to learn and pursue his dreams so as to not end up like his brother who was killed during a drug raid. Mouse spends his extra time working for the local veterinary clinic with his affection surrounding animals a major source of reprieve for the young student. But he’s more at home on the streets, forging an innocent romance with Nicki (Chandler DuPont) who only rolls in during the summer, and spends the extra time cruising with his buddies. He catches a break when former criminal, now on parole, Blax (Mill) takes him under his wing, the proverbial Mr. Miyagi to Winston’s Daniel LaRusso.
Sure, it’s cliché but not so uninspired that it detracts from the message about fighting for second chances, and not blindly following something because your past dictates it. “Charm City Kings” is a thinly structured film, set over the course of one summer, in which Blax promises to outfit Mouse with his own bike if he agrees to help around his mechanic shop. This leads to an internal struggle about whether or not he should stick with Blax or conform to his mother’s wishes that he makes a life for himself. Screenwriter Sherman Payne doesn’t present many unpredictable scenarios, but the movie fires on all cylinders when focused on Mouse's innocences.
Even if the final act becomes watered down by melodramatic showdowns, the film comes alive during a spout of thrilling chases through the burbs of West Baltimore. Long tracking shots follow the cyclists as they careen through populated towns, often evading the police in thrilling sequences. But give credit to Winston for turning Mouse’s journey into an evolving portrait of a young black man trying to navigate the streets. It’s his presence and the paternal relationship with Blax that keep “Charm City Kings” from tethering into after school special territory. Still, it’s a necessary watch about how young children can easily be led astray from mixing in with the wrong crowd, a metaphor made all the more obvious when you realize one character will forge their own path away from the other, a visual cue presented by literally splitting up.
At the end of the day, “Charm City Kings” left me transfixed by the relentless energy and authenticity among these fine cast members. Plus the allure with which Soto presents the perspective of Baltimore and these bikers is a captivating reminder that opportunities aren’t always stuck in the rearview. You have to chase after them.
CHARM CITY KINGS premieres exclusively on HBO MAX October 6th.