“They Cloned Tyrone” – Not a copy but an original [MOVIE REVIEW]

Teyonah Parris as Yo-Yo, Jamie Foxx as Slick Charles and John Boyega as Fontaine. Photo courtesy of Parrish Lewis/Netflix © 2023.

“They Cloned Tyrone” is never entirely what you think it will be. Crossing genre lines many times, Juel Taylor, director and co-writer (with Tony Rettenmaier) surprises at almost every turn. Rather indeterminate in time frame, it might be the recent past or the near future. Cinematographer Ken Seng uses a dark, muddy palette with a grainy pattern that makes it look like a B-movie. The war-zone-like inner city setting in a gone to seed neighborhood is defined by the prostitutes on the street, the corner market selling cigarettes and 40s (40 oz bottles of malt liquor) and the drug dealers on every corner. Everything from the Impala driven by Fontaine, the drug dealer, to the fur collar on pimp Slick Charles’ leatherette coat to the thigh high boots Yo-Yo the “ho” wears screams 1970s Blaxploitation. Fontaine, Slick Charlie and Yo Yo all have counterparts in those 70s movies whether it’s “Super Fly” with its drug dealer hero, “The Mack” centered on a pimp, or “Foxy Brown,” the woman bent on vengeance for her community.

John Boyega as Fontaine and Teyonah Parris as Yo-Yo. Photo courtesy of Parrish Lewis/Netflix.

The unbelievable plot initially focuses on Fontaine. Opening on a typical day, he wakes up at home, orders his usual at the corner market, a 40 and a pack of cigarettes, greets the local oracle-spouting bum and gives him a shot of the malt liquor, and tends to business in his Impala. Fontaine, a drug dealer, jealously protects his turf and runs over a rival on one of his corners. He next arrives at the apartment of Slick Charles, a pimp who owes him big bucks. Just minutes before, Yo-Yo, the most reliable earner in his stable, has announced her retirement and left, suitcase in hand. Fontaine turns Slick’s apartment upside down looking for the money and leaves when he finds it. But his luck is about to change when he’s shot dead in the parking lot by the rival he ran down.

The next day, Fontaine wakes up, drives to the market, gets his 40 and cigarettes, gives the corner bum a pour, gets in his car, goes to Slick Charles apartment. But Charles saw what happened the day before and brings back Yo-Yo to confirm that Fontaine was shot dead. But there he is. Yo-Yo even saw the car that picked up his dead body and leads them to where it went. What they discover is an non-descript house with an elevator that leads to an underground laboratory run by a white guy with an afro in a lab coat. Something is fishy, especially the white powder that is being produced. Never ones to let a mountain of white stuff escape their grasp, Charles and YoYo sample it. It’s not cocaine but it does have the effect of producing unstoppable giggles. The uncontrollably laughing Charles accidentally pulls the trigger on his gold toned snub nose and before you can say “what the hell is going on?,” he shoots the lab tech. But while the two of them were laughing, Fontaine has made a chilling discovery—his dead body in a bag.

John Boyega as Fontaine, Teyonah Parris as Yo-Yo and Jamie Foxx as Slick Charles. Photo courtesy of Parrish Lewis/Netflix

Something else is going on and their suspicions are more thoroughly aroused above ground when they head to the local fried chicken haven, much advertised for its new herbs and spices. It sure is delicious and it makes them laugh and laugh and laugh until they realize that the aforementioned white powder is the new special spice. Everyone in the restaurant is laughing and chilling. 

“They Cloned Tyrone” stays with its comedy genre until suddenly it doesn’t. Fontaine was killed and he did come back from the dead. The local population has become docile and mellow with the infusion of the magic powder in their most popular products.

No stereotype is left unturned, whether it’s fried chicken, hot perms, grape drink or holy roller preachers. Television references abound —”X-Files,” Kevin Bacon in “Hollow Man,” Scooby Doo, “Clockwork Orange,” Spongebob and the Berenstain Bears. A key to Yo-Yo’s personality and previous hopes and dreams was in the complete “Nancy Drew” collection in her childhood bedroom and her various science medals on the wall. She is certain she can unravel the mystery of Fontaine by following Nancy’s example.

But midway through the film, Taylor switches course and tone from light hearted science fiction to conspiracy theory horror and he does it effectively. Fontaine was not a one-off. There is a plot afoot to control the Black community and its residents complete with replicants and newly developed drugs. This is not benign at all and the stakes are ominous with only the drug dealer, pimp and ho to save mankind, or at least their race.

“They Cloned Tyrone” is a complicated film that succeeds most of the time in its journey to entertain and to warn. Its homage to Blaxploitation is thoroughly enjoyable. The dialogue is very funny and is delivered with spot on timing. Yo-Yo is the driving force. Watch as she tries to explain to her dumb as dirt pimp the inevitable fall of cryptocurrency and the rise of blockchain where she has invested her money. Or her corrections to Charles’ malapropisms. The smartest person in the room, she is a leader and the real threat to the conspiracy. 

Teyonah Parris as Yo-Yo, Jamie Foxx as Slick Charles and John Boyega as Fontaine. Photo courtesy of Parrish Lewis/Netflix

Taylor, as director, keeps things moving even when it feels as if the portentous plot is going to implode. Tony Rettenmaier and Taylor as writers help maintain a brisk pace with their intelligent and hilarious dialogue. Seng’s cinematography has already been mentioned, but there is also much to admire in Franco-Giacomo Carone’s production design and the work of the costumers.

But this whole, unlikely premise would not work without the actors Taylor chose as his leads. John Boyega, Fontaine, has probably the most difficult role because he’s the straight man. You have to buy into his character or nothing works. Fontaine propels the action forward. Always serious, lethally focused, Boyega gives him the necessary depth. 

Jamie Foxx inhabits Slick Charles. Hilarious in his stupidity, relishing his cheap wardrobe, Foxx’s pimp is one for the ages. He makes every cliché work overtime while turning it on its head. He plays the comic relief that underpins the action. This over the top character works because of the believability Foxx brings to it. He milks every line but never to the detriment of anyone else. He was the reason I wanted to see the film in the first place and he didn’t disappoint.

Teyonah Parris as Yo-Yo is the glue that holds everything together. The antithesis of every stereotype, her Yo-Yo leads with intelligence, humor and strength. She tolerates the lessers around her (and that would be just about everyone) and uses that fabulous body and wardrobe to every advantage. She’s Jackie Brown, Coffy, Friday Foster and, yes, Nancy Drew. Her deadpan line delivery only serves to emphasize her comedic expertise. 

“They Cloned Tyrone” has its deficits in its overreach of good vs. evil, but the benefits outweigh them and leave you smiling, if slightly uncomfortably.

Opening July 14 at the Landmark Westwood and Landmark Sunset. Streaming July 21 on Netflix.


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