“Changing the Game” is a throwback film that pays homage to landmark early 1990s black films like “New Jack City” and “Boyz N The Hood,” but while showing promise, doesn’t quite measure up to its acclaimed inspiration.
Director Rel Dowdell (“Train Ride”) gets a lot right behind the camera with this — only his second feature film — and he sets the stage for a compelling film, but the script he co-wrote with Aaron R. Astillero is what ultimately prevents “Changing the Game” from becoming a real game changer.
Even as a child, Darrell (a likable Sean Riggs, “Stomp the Yard”) showed remarkable promise despite his father’s murder and mother abandoning him in the care of his grandmother (Irma P. Hall, “Collateral”). After his own near-death experience, Darrell is even more focused on leaving the dangerous streets of his North Philadelphia neighborhood behind.
Besides his grandmother, Darrell’s only real tie to the area is his best friend, Dre, (Dennis L.A. White, “Notorious”) — a drug dealer who runs the neighborhood using tactics adapted from Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Dre is a well-read thug, but his temper has led to his rivals plotting to end his reign permanently. Fearing for his safety, Dre opts to skip town, but not before leaving Darrell the key to a locker presumably filled with his all of his drug money.
Years later, Darrell is the standout graduate of his college class and fast tracks his way to a high-end job at a major Wall Street firm. Dowdell and Astillero needed to connect the dots a bit more for the audience to get Darrell’s motivation beyond having a vast amount of money. Darrell seems to have a decent amount of money and literally every woman in the film throws themselves at him, but he doesn’t seem satisfied with his life and we don’t know what it would take to make him happy. He partners with one of his college pals, Marty (Brandon Ruckdashel), on a vague “investment,” that sounds so spotty it seems destined to fail.
Ruckdashel is the one performer whose performance takes you out of the movie. His Marty is a perfect caricature of every cliché preppy, spoiled white guy and doesn’t seem like someone the more focused Darrell would consider a stable choice for a business partner.
And it isn’t long before Darrell finds the world of Wall Street just as treacherous as his old neighborhood with a federal agent (Tony Todd, “Final Destination”) tracking him; a wealthy businessman with a tempting and dangerous proposition and Marty’s erratic behavior threatening to jeopardize everything so Darrell decides to turn to Dre’s playbook to stay one step ahead of the game.
While it doesn’t have the backing of a major studio, “Game” features impressive production value. It doesn’t have the big-budget gloss of a summer blockbuster and more closely resembles your average cable movie. That’s not a knock as some independent films look like they were done using a cousin’s camera, but “Game” looks very polished.
Dowdell can’t blow millions on sets and multiple cameras, so instead he keeps a tight perspective on his performers. At times, it feels a bit intrusive and closer than you’d prefer to be on the characters, but it’s an understandable shortcut and one he navigates well.
There’s an intriguing twist near the end that I wish Dowdell and Astillero devoted more time to let develop as it’s a critical element that gets shortchanged in favor of some ultimately negligible earlier scenes.
“Changing the Game” has a great set-up and with a stronger script that gets more into the heads of the characters, this would be an easy recommendation. Dowdell shows promise as a director and if he can reach the next level on his scripts, he’ll be an independent director worth keeping an eye on in the future.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10