PLOT In a bullet-ridden Chicago, several women decide to withhold sex until men declare peace.
CAST Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, John Cusack
BOTTOM LINE Spike Lee’s incendiary farce is too uneven to recommend, but its uncanny timing and sense of outrage are worth noting.
“Chi-Raq” is everything you’d expect from the polarizing filmmaker Spike Lee: smart, funny, wildly inventive, but also goofy, preachy and a little incoherent. The adjective “uneven” has described Lee’s work for some time now, but the best word for “Chi-Raq” might be “maddening.”
The film’s title is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq, as an opening list of death tolls in both places makes clear. Chi-Raq is also the name of a rapper (a compelling Nick Cannon) trapped in a deadly gang war. These aren’t the Crips and the Bloods, though — they’re the Trojans and the Spartans. Chi-Raq’s main squeeze, played by Teyonah Parris (AMC’s “Mad Men”), is named Lysistrata.
Ring any bells, classics majors? “Chi-Raq” is based on Aristophanes’ play “Lysistrata,” about women who withhold sex until their men end the Peloponnesian war. In this version, when a little girl is killed by a stray bullet, Lysistrata spearheads a citywide sex strike: Nobody gets a piece before making peace. (That’s the movie’s pun, not mine.) The result is a battle of the sexes in which the men try everything — wooing, coaxing, playing slow jams — to loosen those chastity belts.
The moments of gonzo farce and incendiary satire work well, but “Chi-Raq” can’t avoid politically driven melodrama and lengthy soapboxing. John Cusack, playing a religious leader inspired by Chicago’s Father Michael Pfleger, is surprisingly convincing while railing against black-on-black crime, but a sermon is still a sermon. Samuel L. Jackson, as our cheerfully foulmouthed narrator, Dolmedes, is a far more entertaining figure.
“Chi-Raq” is packed with fine actors in small roles — Angela Bassett, Steve Harris, Jennifer Hudson — and includes welcome comebacks from Dave Chappelle and Wesley Snipes. Kudos to everyone for tackling the film’s rhyming dialogue, a mix of slam poetry and Shakespearean verse (written by Lee and Kevin Willmott) that ranges from clever to corny.
The first production from Amazon Original Movies, “Chi-Raq” is tough to wholeheartedly recommend, but its topical themes and uncanny timing — arriving as anger over the police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago is roiling anew — are worth noting. Whatever you think of Lee, he’s an artist engaged in the world and determined to make his own sense of it.