Sleight and all the images you see in this review are owned by WWE Studios, BH Tilt, High Top Releasing, and Universal Pictures
Directed by JD Dillard
If I ever decide to write a screenplay, I have two ideas. One of them I’m still gonna keep to myself, but the other was a fake-documentary about a street magician who ACTUALLY had magic powers. I hadn’t really thought of it past that point (no idea what the conflict would be), but when I saw the trailer to Sleight it looked like someone had made a much better version of my idea and I couldn’t wait to see it. That kind of magic (or should I say MAGIC!) has always been of great interest to me, whether it’s Penn & Teller’s unique brand of magic comedy, the soft spot I have for at least the second Now You See Me movie, or even Zatanna from DC Comics who is one of my favorite super heroes of all time. Mixing that with a sort of low key X-Men origin story seemed like the kind of movie that would easily be one of my favorites of the year, and that’s saying something considering how good the movies have been so far! Does this manage to exceed my expectations as a pseudo-superhero movie with card tricks and drug dealers, or does this all devolve into a mess of poorly thought out ideas and wasted potential? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the adventures of Bo (Jacob Latimore); a mild mannered young man with a little sister Tina (Storm Reid), a penchant for magic tricks, and a side job selling drugs to keep a roof over their heads. Now that last thing might sound rather risky to be doing, even if he doesn’t have much of a choice (both his parents are dead), but then again… who else would be better at hiding drugs than a master of sleight of hand!? Well I can think of at least ONE kind of person who’d be better! A master of sleight of hand who ALSO has super powers! Now he doesn’t make his powers obvious, but he clearly is using some sort of subtle manipulation of objects around him that no actual magician would have, so on top of being bad ass with a deck of cards he can ALSO avoid police suspicion with the way he can hide his products. This has led to him being a rather good dealer which is good news for his supplier Angelo (Dulé Hill) who wants to bring Bo deeper into his organization. On top of dealing with that and his kid sister, he also manages to meet a nice girl named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) who he wants to be there for as well but Angelo pulling him closer keeps pushing him further away from them. Eventually things come to a head with Angelo and Bo has to find a way to get out from under his thumb once and for all, even if it means doing something he’s never wanted to do with the gifts he’s been given. Will BO be able to protect everyone he loves before Angelo takes everything away from him? What exactly is the nature of his powers and how did he get them? I wonder what his magician name would be. Bo the Benevolent?
It’s good. It’s… just fine. I was kind of hoping for something different which is why I’m only able to summon so much enthusiasm for it, and maybe that’s more on me than the movie itself, but it feels like the filmmakers either didn’t have the vision or the budget to take full advantage of the premise they had. Now I’m not just saying that because this didn’t turn out to be an X-Men movie, though admittedly that’s PART of it. The movie they did end up making, magic powers or not, is just not very satisfying to sit through as it focuses too much on stuff that is ultimately inconsequential and crams everything interesting in the solid first act and extremely truncated third. Okay, MAYBE that’s a bit harsh as the movie itself doesn’t make many pretensions of being anything other than a character piece and the actors absolutely carry this movie all the way through, and it’s not even like the overlong second act is devoid of excellent moments. There’s just too much of this movie that feels unnecessary… yet is still good on its own. It’s like watching the best filler episodes of a TV show you could imagine, but they were sandwiched in just before we got to the climax of an amazing story arc. I just… I can’t DISLIKE you, but why would you do that to me!?
Okay, so what exactly works about this movie that’s making it so hard for me to simultaneously accept its glaring flaws and hate it for having them in the first place? The acting is fantastic across the board, from Jacob Latimore as our hero Bo to his girlfriend Holly played by Seychelle Garbiel who may not have magic powers but whose current living situation is comparable to his own. There’s believable awkwardness in the way they interact early on, especially on that first date, and while I KIND of have slight problem with how quickly she falls for him despite his shady behavior, her acting overcomes that minor flaw I have with the characterization. Heck, they even managed to bring Cameron Esposito into this who’s known more for comedy yet does a great job in the small role that she has here. At the very least, it’s a step up from her last role which was a supporting character with barely any lines in Mother’s Day. The real star though has to be Dulé Hill as the big bad gangster who’s turning Bo’s life into a living hell. Now I only know him as the dude who got killed in Holes and the persnickety sidekick in Psych, but in here he is straight up TERRIFYING; not just because he’s a brutal drug dealer, but because of how well he can snake his way into people’s brains and bring them further and further into his orbit a little bit at a time. He’s clearly been grooming Bo ever since he hired him, and the things he makes Bo do in this movie are haunting. He’s so good that I kinda wished he was in here much more than he was, but what we get of him is fantastic all the same.
The movie is absolutely at its best in the first act where we’re still learning about who Bo is, the extent of whatever powers he has, and how his situation is heartbreakingly realistic. No matter how much “magic” you may have, there’s not a whole lot of money in it and being and having to take care of a younger sister as well as yourself in means having to make some tough choices. The movie can definitely be seen as a scathing indictment of the meritocracy as this one dude has powers and abilities that NO ONE ELSE has, yet is still barely able to scrape by. To a certain extent, I DO have to question what his plan really was going forward; if his street magic WAS making him enough money to be worth it, if he was planning to get on that Penn & Teller Fool Us show, and how he expected to quit working for Dulé Hill at some point which seemed to be his ultimate goal. He comes off a bit naive at points, especially when he’s shocked that working with drug dealers can turn out badly for him, but then again it’s hardly my place to judge what some people will have to do in order to survive and take care of those who they care for.
The problems start to come in right after that initial half hour when it becomes clear just how bad things are gonna get before Bo has to take matters into his own hands. We know that everything is going downhill by that point and we ESPECIALLY know that things are coming to a head by the forty five minute mark once Dulé Hill makes an impossible demand of him… yet the movie insists on spending a good half hour pretending that the impossible demand is in some way doable. This is where things start to drag as the crisis point (what should be the All is Lost moment leading up to the triumphant showdown) is its own little arc within the movie and it just feels unnecessary. Now to a certain extent, I do understand as there are some very solid scenes within this section of the movie. There are good moments where Bo finally admits that he’s not handling things as well as he pretends to, and there’s even a small heist that’s really interesting and incredible tense to watch, but while watching it I couldn’t help but think that this is all pointless because we know EXACTLY where the story is going. Sure enough, everything ends up exactly where you’d expect and all we have to show for it is a shorter third act that was partially consumed by an end of second act that didn’t know when to quit. Maybe if they had bothered to subvert our expectations in how this was going to end it would have worked, but instead I was just sitting around five steps ahead of this movie and waiting for the inevitable confrontation.
The third act, while it does ramp things up and have some very satisfying moments, is not without its problems. For one, they go ahead and explain exactly what the source of Bo’s magic power is, and… yeah, I’m calling bullshit. It’s one thing for me to go along with something that is vague or only somewhat explained, but the moment they try to put in REAL science is when they break my suspension of disbelief. We never find out exactly what the powers in Chronicle are or how they work, a movie that this film is often comparing itself to in the marketing, yet THAT movie manages to keep within its own set of rules and boundaries because of that. If you get too specific to something that ACTUALLY exists in our world, the tradeoff for the added sense of realism is that it has to be compared in some way to how it would actually work and that just does not happen here. Then again, some of the magic tricks he does COULD be legit MAGIC! Tricks instead of Science-Magic Tricks, so maybe you won’t be bothered by the explanation they give towards the end. Also, the final shot of the movie is just weak and seems intentionally vague; less so to convey an air of mystery than to cover up an ending they hadn’t fully thought out.
I’m probably being a bit more curmudgeonly than I should be considering how much this movie does right in terms of what it’s ACTUALLY trying to be. It’s not the movie’s fault that the marketing is selling this as CHRONICLE MEETS IRON MAN (okay…), but even with that taken for granted, I still feel like there’s more that could have been done with this story so that it didn’t drag as much in the middle. Maybe it was due to the film’s budget as this cost a mere quarter of a million dollars to make (that’s one thousandth of the budget for Fate of the Furious) and it certainly shows in terms of how the movie was put together (keep that finale as short as possible!), but in the end it’s a movie that manages to succeed despite how few resources it had to work with, and they certainly seem open to a sequel which could possibly be the movie I was hoping for when I saw that initial trailer. I’d say it’s worth checking out, especially if you don’t have the expectations that I had walking into it, but you probably wouldn’t miss much if you waited for it to get a home release. Now then, if DC ever decides to make a Static Shock movie…