Before a single line of dialogue is uttered in Charm City Kings — before the title credits have barely begun rolling — you hear the sound of motorbikes: a whirring, revving, sputtering cacophony that sounds like the occupants of a hornet’s nest switching to savage mode. In Baltimore, Maryland, the noise equals status in certain neighborhoods, where what kind of bike you own and what kind of tricks you can do on it determines the respect you get. The undisputed real-life rough-riding kings of the scene are the 12 O’Clock Boys, a group who got their name by popping wheelies that point a bike’s front tire in a perfect straight line upward — like clockhands hitting noon or midnight. These guys are Baltimore street royalty. They’re the kings of the road.
If you’ve seen The 12 O’Clock Boys, Lofty Nathan’s stellar 2013 doc on the subculture, then you know what a rush it is to watch rebels burn rubber, defy gravity and take pride in in their rides. (If you haven’t seen it, find it online and check it out ASAP.) You also know that getting in to the club is a coveted thing, with the portrait’s 13-year-old protagonist, Pug, trying to earn his way into their ranks. A fictionalized melodrama, Charm City Kings uses Nathan’s reportage as a jumping-off point. The biker gang du jour here is called the Midnight Clique. The kid looking for a way into the two-wheel elite is named Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston); his late older brother was a Clique legend and, judging from the memorial-video footage of him we see Mouse watching, one of the best in town. The gang’s leader is Blax (hip-hop legend Meek Mill), who’s just got out of prison and is looking to keep things straight by working as a mechanic. He’s taken a shine to this youngster obsessed with motorbikes, and may feel like he owes it to Mouse’s brother to look after him.
There’s more, a lot more. Like Detective Rivers (William Catlett), the cop that met Mouse in a mentor program and warns him to stay away from those no-good bikers. And Sweartagod (Kezii Curtis) and Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.), Mouse’s best friends who also worship the Clique; the latter has a pent-up violent streak in him as well. And Jamal (Pacino Braxton), Blax’s right-hand man who handles the less-than-legal aspects of the organization and thinks he can put Lamont’s rage to good use. And Nicki (Chandler DuPont), the new girl in town who loves photography, and has caught Mouse’s eye. And Mouse’s mom (Chi-Raq‘s force of nature Teyonah Parris), who wants him to stick to the path of becoming a veterinarian — he volunteers at the local animal shelter — and his little sister (Milan Ray), who understands that silence regarding his sneaking out of the house comes with a monetary value, and ….
It’s a movie that doesn’t lack for characters or incidents, in other words, and you get the feeling that director Angel Manuel Soto would throw a few more storylines and supporting parts in here if he could. There’s so much happening at any given moment that you begin to wonder when anyone has the time to actually get on their bikes. Soto gives us two standout sequences — “The Ride,” a weekly summer gathering in which guys (it’s mostly guys) show-off their tricks for a crowd, and a breakneck chase scenes through Baltimore’s back alleys — that put these road rockets to great use.
Otherwise, this whole maverick movement is basically a backdrop for a very, very familiar coming-of-age story. Mouse has to chose whether to listen to the devil or the angel on his shoulder, which is complicated by the fact that the film isn’t sure whether Blax is a criminal, a reformed criminal, a role model who just got a raw deal, or some all-of-the-above combo. Mill plays the man’s every card so close to the vest they’re practically sewn into the fabric; he’s also equal parts laconic and movie-star charismatic, and a total casting coup. But rather than giving him someone who contains multitudes to play, Charm City Kings hands him a father-figure tough guy who seems to change according to whatever a scene demands. You can feel the narrative hitting predictable beats like it was upshifting an ATV’s gears, from infatuations with the outlaw life to blowing off good influences, getting sucked into the game to bad decisions leading to bodies dropping.
We don’t want to imply that these reflections of IRL social issues and systematic ills, or tales involving real people in real neighborhoods who too often get reduced to below-the-fold headline fodder, have no value — there are a million stories in the naked city, and this particular one deserves to be told and retold. Especially if, like Kings, you can populate the background with real Baltimore bikers and give people a glimpse of the streets they ride-or-die on. It helps, however, when you can say something new about such things, and maybe shed light on why this scene has taken root in the region, and also not leave people feeling like you’re simply turning these elements into nothing but inner-city exotica for a cinematic calling card.
It’s easy to guess why a fictional drama about the 12 O’Clock Boys would get made, especially when you know that any film executive-produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith (with a story credit by, among others, Barry Jenkins), picked up by Sony and ends up premiering on HBO Max will capture a lot more eyeballs than an independent doc. If this leads folks back to Lofty Nathan’s chronicle of the real thing, all the better. That still doesn’t make the feeling go away that you’re watching something simply spinning its wheels until it runs out of gas.