Rather resembling a blaxploitation-based cousin of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a deeper sense of social consciousness, They Cloned Tyrone is a predominately grim yet intriguing account of constrained, little-hope lives victimized even further by nefarious secret attempts to transform them into obedient, well-behaved zombies. Set in what appears to be the late ‘60s-early ‘70s based on the period cars, outfits and outlandish hairstyles, Juel Taylor’s feature directorial debut, which he wrote with Tony Rettenmaier, delivers live-wire performances from the young cast but nonetheless remains notably dire, even forlorn in its depiction of small-town lives momentarily confronted with a bizarre enemy found right in their midst. This Netflix offering opens theatrically July 14 for a week prior to its move to home tubes July 21.
“A pimp, a whore and a drug dealer walk into a bar….” This is the look and feel of things that describe the three low-lifers at the center of things in a small, dingy town — “a place lost in time,” one local says — where everything and everyone has seen better days, with the result that most of the observed citizens appear to be dirt poor and drunk before noon.
Doing little better are Fontaine (John Boyega), a tough, fancily coiffed hustler whose abiding interests are shooting off both his mouth and gun on a daily basis, a guy still eagerly looking for his Big Chance, and YoYo (Teyonah Parris of Mad Men), a hyper-lively “working girl” with a gift for colorful gab. She works for Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), a self-dramatizing pimp or, as he prefers to put it, “entrepreneur.”
The early-going is mostly devoted to these three’s daily habits and dispensing useful information that might come into play later. With this strong a cast, there was a definite opportunity for plenty of hijinks and incidental humor. But Taylor, who co-wrote Creed II and Space Jam: A New Legacy and has done a bit of television, is plainly working closer to the real world here in her depiction of dead-end lives going nowhere other than the nearest bar or convenience store.
Despite the persistent, amusing verbiage employed most of all by YoYo — the energy and amusement level invariably kicks up several notches whenever she’s onscreen — the film all but wallows in the misery of its no-hope setting; the mood established over the first half-hour or so is unusually grim, as the no-hoper population is stuck with no evident ways out. However, hidden behind the grungy façade of a non-descript local building is an elaborate high-tech lab populated mostly, but not entirely, by whites who are clearly working on something very sensitive and top secret. “Anybody else got a spooky feeling around here?” one of them queries as they check out the joint.
At this point, They Cloned Tyrone seems poised to become something that, at least initially, feels fresh, a conjunction of sci-fi and blaxploitation that, 50 years after the latter genre’s heyday, could possibly give it a welcome recharge, if not a full-bodied return. But, as ready as the audience might be to be transported to hitherto unvisited districts of the genre’s potential universe, Tyrone never quite gets there.
The quotidian aspects of life in this small town are acutely and amusingly detailed, from the language and cars to the wardrobe and slang. Unfortunately, however, the film doesn’t mix its assorted ingredients all that well. Other than to smartly allow Taylor to hilariously run rampant with her performance as a motormouthed prostitute, Taylor keeps the tone and humor level down, which prevents the film from maximizing its comic potential, and any would-be zombies emerging from the experiments remain relatively inconsequential.
The sci-fi-inspired elements are just “there” with no explanation and are always shadowed by the misery of the citizens’ circumstances, misfortunes and inability to escape, an element that, due to the way this film is structured and weighted, significantly overshadows the other-worldly aspects. Far more effective and unusual is the way the town’s Black community is depicted and treated as something that must be suppressed and marginalized, only now in a more underhanded, surreptitious way.
If not well balanced or fully achieved, They Cloned Tyrone is provocative in its mix of sci-fi and contemporary political elements; it’s unusual, gutsy and entirely welcome as something different and unexpected in the genre.
Title: They Cloned Tyrone
Release date: July 14, 2023 (theaters); July 21, 2023 (streaming)
Director: Juel Taylor
Screenwriters: Tony Rettenmaier, Juel Taylor
Cast: John Boyega, Teyonah Parris, David Alan Grier, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Tamberla Perry, Eric Robinson Jr., Kiefer Sutherland, Jamie Foxx
Running time: 2 hr 2 min
Content Source: deadline.com