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'White Boy Rick' review: Teen turns from informant to drug dealer in compelling crime drama

Newcomer Richie Merritt, left, plays the title role

Newcomer Richie Merritt, left, plays the title role in "White Boy Rick" and Matthew McConaughey is his gunrunning father. Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures' and Studio 8's/Scott Garfield

PLOT In the mid-1980s, a barely pubescent Detroit teenager becomes a successful drug dealer.

CAST Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Jonathan Majors

RATED R (violence, language)

LENGTH 1:50

BOTTOM LINE A compelling if sometimes muddled true-life crime drama.

Yann Demange’s “White Boy Rick” takes place in the mid-1980s, when the economy was go-go-going — though not for everyone. It’s set in Detroit, a city that was synonymous with blight, and its anti-hero is Richard Wershe Jr., a poor white teenager who became an FBI informant, a trusted employee within a black crack-dealing network and then a peddler in his own right. When he was arrested at 17, Rick became a celebrity of sorts, touted in the media as a cocaine kingpin whose mustache was still just peach fuzz.

It’s a movie-ready story, and “White Boy Rick” hits many of the right notes: Drama, pathos, a touch of topicality, a terrifically natural performance from first-time actor Richie Merritt in the title role and solid support from Matthew McConaughey as Rick’s likable lowlife of a dad, Richard Wershe Sr. It’s a thoroughly watchable drama, skilfully written by Andy Miller and others, although — like its young protagonist — doesn’t always have a clear idea of what it’s trying to achieve.

“White Boy Rick” tackles issues of race, culture, gun violence and anti-drug policy, but it works best as a portrait of Detroit (ably played by Cleveland) as one of the many bleak valleys left in the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s shining city on a hill. The Wershes (Bel Powley plays Rick’s drug-addicted sister, Dawn) live in a ramshackle house that was probably once part of a pleasant suburb; now it’s the home base for Richard's small-time gunrunning operation. He sends his son out to sell cheap firearms to local kingpins like Johnny Curry (Jonathan Majors), which is how young Rick gets in Curry’s good graces. That's also how — in a somewhat fuzzy plot turn — Rick gets pressured into being an informant for two FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as fictional characters).

Perhaps because it takes only so much poetic license, “White Boy Rick” lacks the nasty jolts of an informant-themed thriller like “The Departed." Rick takes a bullet at one point, but he himself was a nonviolent criminal. That makes his current fate — life in prison under a draconian Michigan anti-drug law — somewhat baffling, and the film doesn’t have enough bandwidth to explain it fully. If this story has a moral, it’s never clearly stated, but "White Boy Rick" is still compelling viewing.

ROLLING WITH THE RICKS

Convicted drug-dealer Richard Wershe Jr. gained fame as “White Boy Rick” in the 1980s, and the catchy nickname has stuck with him all his life. Here are four more famous cinematic Ricks (with some variation):

CASABLANCA (1942) He played a Sam, a Philip, a Fred and even a Dixon, among others, but Humphrey Bogart may be best remembered as Rick Blaine, the cynical ex-pat with a soft spot for Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), in this Oscar-winning masterpiece.


BLADE RUNNER (1982) Harrison Ford’s replicant-hunting cop is known mostly as Deckard in this sci-fi masterpiece. His little-used first name, according to the original novel by Philip K. Dick, is the classic-sounding Rick.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (2006) One of Will Ferrell’s best creations was this fictional NASCAR racer with the rhyming catchphrase (“shake and bake!”), the loyal pal (John C. Reilly as Cal Naughton Jr.) and — as one onlooker notes — two first names.

RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015) Meryl Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, leader of a Southern California bar band, in this final dramatic film from Long Island director Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”), who died two years after its release.

—Rafer Guzmán

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