What we have in the misbegotten mess called Kings is a film of countless good intentions – one that starts going bad in its first scene, gets worse form there and then dissolves into pure chaos. How does this happen given the talented crew involved? Welcome to #Movies 101 where nobody knows nothin’.
Halle Berry – that’s right, the Oscar winner – stars as Millie, a glam-looking single foster mother of eight kids living in the racial hothouse of South Central Los Angeles circa 1992, when the Rodney King trial helped spark the L.A. riots. Daniel “The James Bond of Choice for Every Millennial” Craig costars as Obie, her smitten neighbor and a love interest to root for. Or he would be, if he wasn’t such a nutjob drunk given to walking around naked and firing his shotgun in the air when rioters and police piss him off.
The title is a nod to two Kings – Rodney and Martin Luther – which tells us immediately that this drama aims to tackle major themes through regular citizens caught up in the melee. Writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, whose 2016 debut feature Mustang won a much deserved Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film, is a Turkish filmmaker based in France. And she researched her screenplay by interviewing eye-witnesses. The film’s comedic tone (wait till you watch Obie tossing furniture off his balcony) is all Ergüven’s idea, an absurdist twist so daring you root for it to work.
But it doesn’t work – not at all. Instead, it throws Kings into a tailspin from which it never recovers. The movie begins with a recreation of an igniting incident – the acquittal of South Korean convenience store owner Soon Ja Du for shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins for trying to steal a a bottle of orange juice. Later, news clips, including the brutal Rodney King beating, are inserted to anchor the film to harsh reality. Total pandemonium ensues as Ergüven cuts to Millie’s erotic dreams (!), Obie’s lunatic behavior and a risible moment when a white cop handcuffs these unlikely lovers to a traffic stand.
Kings is one of those social-issue duds that inspire forgiving audiences to say, “Well, at least it has its heart in the right place.” Guess what? That’s not enough. The filmmaker sets up Millie as a Mother Teresa of the hood, willing to take in abandoned children of all ages, races and sexes. When needed, Obie even babysits. It’s unbelievable to a fault. There’s no blaming the young actors, notably Lamar Johnson as Jesse, the eldest of Millie’s brood, and Kaalan “KR” Walker as William, as the bad influence who spurs Millie’s kids on a shoplifting spree. But their stories seem less patterned after actual behavior than bogus saints-and-sinners melodrama. In the end, the movie traps its characters and a piece of momentous history in a crazyquilt of random action, irrelevant humor and questionable purpose. We’re calling bullshit all around.