As a wanna-be, er, pseudo-critic, I like to think that honesty is a good policy to have when writing about something. Fuck objectivity, because it doesn’t exist. So I’ll readily admit that my desire to see Next Day Air stems from two things: it’s trailer being aired during just about every commercial break for this year’s so far beyond-outstanding NBA playoffs, and because, as a devout cultist/church member of The Wire*, my love for Avon Barksdale/Wood Harris knows no bounds. Thus, my entire viewing experience was predicated on the notion that I am both a sucker for advertising and fueled by post-Wire depression (nostalgia?) to the extent that I’ll see anything involving former cast members (I’m still planning on seeing Obsessed, though for the record I’m much more a Harris/Barksdale guy than I am a Elba/Bell guy).
But that’s not to say this was easy — first, I’m naturally revolted by television/commercial directors, especially since in the last decade or so, when so-so-so many who made the TV-to-Film leap have turned about to be complete shit (e.g. Abrams, McG, Tarsem, etc., and to think these are the marquee! ones). Next Day Air was directed by long time hip-hop music video and documentary filmmaker Benny Boom, which posed a potential problem. Second, Donald Faison always struck me as a shmucky, cartoon-like overactor, which turns out is more the fault of the insufferable series Scrubs than it is Faison, though it’s not for lack of eye-bulging, which is ever present in Next Day Air. Both of these assumptions more or less blew up in my face. Boom proves to be a very economic story teller, and despite indulging in some Guy Ritchie-esque flashbacks that should be an insult, they came off more as hilarious quips of subjectivity and ‘how-we-got-here’ flashes of information. That’s to say they are short, effective, and not as cheesy as they should be. Faison makes a pretty good turn being buggy eyed (his specialty) and stoned, and the ensemble cast is able to take a lot of weight off his shoulders.
The story is more or less a pretty trite setup, which is why I won’t dwell on it too much. It’s like this: stoned delivery driver (Faison) drops off package to apartment of inept gangsters Guch (Wood Harris) and Brody (Mike Epps). The package is full of coke. The package is intended for the apartment across the hall, occupied by Puerto Rican gangster couple Jesus (Cisco Reyes) and Chita (Yasmin Deliz). Brody makes plans to sell it off to his big time drug dealer cousin Shavoo (Omari Hardwick) and his bodyguard (Darius McCrary). Meanwhile, of course, drug kingpin Bodega Diablo (Emilio Rivera) is none too pleased it’s gone missing. So yeah, light fuse, and go.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the cliche urban gangster film. Turns out, as avowed by much more esteemed critics Nathan Lee and Nathan Rabin, Next Day Air is best viewed as a raucous revisit (update?) of Blaxploitation. For real. But even further, it turns out that Next Day Air is mostly a comedy of errors, or rather, of incompetence. Dealt with in interwoven ensemble, each character, or more specifically each ‘character grouping’ (mostly in twos), has their own well portrayed conflict and struggle. Each character is ultimately sympathetic (and even interesting), in plight and circumstance. This isn’t The Black Gestapo, folks, and Boom and first time screenwriter Blair Cobbs make sure to give their ensemble cast a certain likeability that is a twisted combination of slapstick and authenticity, giving vibrant life to characters on the fringe, whom the general public would otherwise look down upon. While it’s a far way off from The Wire in terms of realness, what’s demonstrated is a good touch of comedy in extreme circumstances, which is something The Wire (and The Sopranos) excelled at, if not damn perfected. You’ve got Leo, just your average stoned delivery man, was just trying to do his job. Sure, he was stoned, but it’s not really his fault he delivered the package to the wrong, you know? He’s not in ‘the game’ per se as the others are, so it’s really hard not to feel bad for the mope. Brody and Guch are just trying to get out of the slums, and proven their bad track record as stick-up artists, which includes robbing a bank and only coming away with the surveillance tapes, are just trying to capitalize on a once in a lifetime opportunity. Jesus, launched into The Game more or less accidentally, definitely not on his own free will, shouldn’t technically be responsible for the missing package. But his life depends on its location, poor guy, and his girlfriend Chita, deeply concerned/annoyed about his potential well being, helps him and takes things into her own hands. Shavoo is just trying to make one last score before he hangs up his gangster gloves for good. And so on. All that and more, in like, 84 minutes.
I’m sure there’s a clamoring somewhere that the characters in Next Day Air are unfair racial stereotypes being reinforced, which is pretty much indisputable when you’re talking about Blaxploitation, and there’s a handful of reviews I read lamenting the limited screen time of Mos Def (as if these newspaper critics could get any whiter/mainstream). But it’s time to get hip to the Obama age, people, where we can have an entire film created by and starring minorities, and one that manages to for the most part transcend stereotypes. Sure, the characters are all African-American or Hispanic (in this case, Puerto Rican), and they are either on drugs or gangsters, but god damn, lighten up. This isn’t the frightening, conservative world of Tyler Perry we’re talkin’ about here, or some other Soul Plane bullshit. Next Day Air is some really tight, tense, comedic filmmaking, carrying more than its weight in its grimey and violent Blaxploitation roots, in addition to putting forth an impressive and engaging ensemble cast of fuckups trying to get their piece of the American Dream.
*You know, the greatest show in the history of television! Bet you haven’t heard someone say that before.