directed by Ted Demme
(MCA/Universal, 1999)

When you look back at the '70s, and remember how Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor were pioneers in risque black humor, and were actually funny to boot, it saddens the soul to see how low the bar can be set with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. The truly sad thing is, Eddie Murphy was once able to turn in a good comedic performance.

The movie in question is Life, a look at two men sent to prison for life, and how their story enfolds. Eddie Murphy plays the conman and pickpocket Ray Gibson, while Martin Lawrence plays straight man and soon-to-be bank teller Claude Banks (no pun intended -- I hope). Basically, Ray owes the local bar owner and hood leader Spanky (cameo appearance from funkman Rick James) some money, while Claude gets robbed by two guys for the money he owes on a gambling debt and can't pay for his dinner. Obviously, this means both need to die. While I can see this working with Ray, it's a little stretched with Claude. Do all people who can't pay their bill get killed? Makes you wonder if the reason Jimmy Hoffa went missing was because he shouldn't have ordered that expensive spaghetti plate. Make sure your VISA cards are not maxed out before going to eat in Harlem, or you might die. Great message.

Anyway, to pay off their respective debts, they agree to run moonshine from Mississippi. Another loss of sanity has Spanky give money to the two people that owe him money. (Work with me now). After procuring the liquor, the two go to spend some time in a local bar. They come across a dead man, and get framed by the "racist white police officer" and get sent to the state pen for life.

The movie then revolves around these two surviving in a work prison, without having to do much work. They make multiple escape attempts, getting captured each time. They meet the prerequisite prison characters -- the gay guy, the large mean guy, the fixer, a couple of unintelligent types, and the kid with talent. So after a while, Henry Robbins and Morgan Freeman (SORRY, thought I was watching Shawshank Redemption there for a moment). ... Basically, the story goes downhill from this point on. Time passes, and everyone they know dies except for one character who acts as our narrator. The racist sheriff makes his appearance as the new warden, when it's discovered that "Gosh, they really ARE innocent!"

Before I give you the impression that I didn't like this movie, there were some good parts. Rick Baker's makeup effects to age Murphy and Lawrence were incredible. Especially when you see how much time they spent in the sun with the stuff. There were some great scenes showing Murphy and Lawrence's humor, showing there was a reason they made money in comedy. Wyclef Jean's (of Fugee repute) musical score was a perfect match to what was happening on screen.

However, the movie had severe flaws. When you consider this movie was set in the deep South, and most of the action happened pre-'60s, it makes you wonder how this all-black prison got away with as much as they did. I am not one to condone racism, but the characters never bothered to act like they were surrounded by it. Picture it as dropping 1990s black men into the past, and watch their reactions. As many times as the two main characters attempted to escape, you would think they would have been shot dead. However, I am reminded this was a comedy, so certain harshness had to be glossed over.

Then again, this comedy acted more as a glorification of prisoners than a comedy. We were expected to feel remorse for the characters as they passed away in a musical segment, yet we only knew them for a few scenes. Men who were self-professed murderers and rapists were smiling and laughing as they waved goodbye. Plus, where were the hard knocks of a work prison camp? We're shown two scenes where they are actually working, when most of the action of the movie is spent in rest time, where the prisoners get to walk around, play baseball, have parties, etc. Almost makes you want to go to prison.

This movie tried too hard to be both serious and comical at the same time, while attempting to tell the story that Shawshank Redemption did so well. If you want to get the most out of the experience of watching Life, go to your movie store and rent Shawshank Redemption and Eddie Murphy's Best of tape from Saturday Night Live. You'll enjoy that a lot more than Life.

[ by Timothy Keene ]

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