John Boyega stars as Fontaine, an average citizen of an average community known as The Glen. At first, Fontaine is like a cliché of the “gritty black drama protagonist” with his distant mother heard only by a door and his dead brother haunting his moral choices. He’s a dirty drug dealer who is likely to learn about what matters to him while dodging bullets from those trying to take his turf. We have seen that movie. This is not that movie.
After a kind of well-crafted prologue that establishes the community of The Glen as a character in itself – shot with stark beauty by cinematographer Ken Seng – Fontaine is shot and killed while trying to collect from one of his clients, a pimp named Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx). But then he wakes up the next day and continues his routine as if nothing had happened. When he returns to Charles, the former Players Ball star is more than a little shocked to see him, as is one of his sex workers Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), who witnessed the shooting the night before. Astute Yo-Yo senses that this could be one of those Nancy Drew mysteries she loved and springs into action, leading the trio on an investigation that uncovers something unimaginable and, well, impossible. Without spoiling it, “They Cloned Tyrone” is almost a Blaxploitation variation on “Cabin in the Woods” in the way it suggests an entire behind-the-scenes operation aimed at keeping people in their place. When Fontaine, Charles and Yo-Yo discover how the strings of an entire community are pulled, they decide to cut them off.
The screenplay by Taylor and co-writer Tony Rettenmaier, formerly of Blacklist fame, is consistently inventive and funny. But it wouldn’t work without a trio as talented as Boyega, Parris and Foxx to deliver it. Each performer brings a different necessary pace to the film: Boyega is the stoic, grief-stricken hero; Parris balances his low-key energy with her high-octane fear; Foxx is mostly comic relief, but never steals the spotlight. And their very different registers mix with great comic chemistry as these three unlikely heroes discover that all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard were just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the film’s best moments are simply due to how expertly Boyega, Foxx and Harris work together.
By the time “Tyrone” has played his “what’s going on” part in a trashy exposition scene with a villain played with appropriate menace by Kiefer Sutherland, he has very little time left to live up to her scene. While the last half isn’t bad, it’s more rushed and even traditional than the better parts of that first hour. There are also some ideas here about community and the predetermined roles we are sometimes forced to play within it, which could have been fleshed out a bit more with less expository monologues.
“They Cloned Tyrone” may bend under the weight of ideas but never breaks, mainly because of its large ensemble, but also because Juel Taylor clearly has an eye and an ambition that screams promise. He may have made a film with classic notes like A Clockwork Orange and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but he uses these cultural touchstones in a way that feels fresh and new. I have a feeling his career won’t be a clone of someone else’s.
On Netflix now.