(Release Date: May 11, 2012)
To be The Prince...
or to be your own man.
It's safe to say that Rel Dowdell knows how to keep the viewer on their toes... uncertain of which path his film is going down and when. Much like Train Ride, Dowdell assembles a noteworthy cast to tell a gripping, if scarcely "pleasant" story. Director Rel Dowdell (who wrote the screenplay with Aaron R. Astillero) isn't shooting for "pleasant" here. He's shooting for "Story". And this story is well-told.
Changing the Game focuses around the journey of Darrell Barnes (Sean Riggs), a brilliant young student whose path evolves him into a successful businessman and power-player with very difficult choices to make along the way.
Riggs proves to have been a wise casting choice as along the way we see every step of Darrell's journey in his face. As a small child (played by Jakobi Alvin), Darrell lost his father to street violence and his mother took off, leaving him with his paternal grandmother (well-played by Irma P. Hall). It was Grandma's strive to instill in the already gifted Darrell a strong moral fiber that guides the rest of his story through and through.
It's Darrell's lifelong friend Dre (Dennis L.A. White), however, who sums up "The Game" of the title with his frequent quoting of The Prince by Niccol˛ Machiavelli! This tends to instill a much different morality from that of Grandma Barnes.
The question, every step of the way, is what paths will Darrel take in his search for something more?
In Train Ride Rel Dowdell explored the nature of a very specific kind of evil in a man who is shown to be even MORE evil due to his ignorance of his evil. Darrell shows none of these traits of evil, instead proving himself to be a brilliant man with a good heart whose choices range from the very good... to the moral baseline, never delving into truly horrible or evil things, even when the Horrible and Evil come close enough to Darrell to touch him. These come in many forms, such as a violent pimp named Curtis (played by the always incredible Tony Todd in one of two great roles) and more mysterious, less surface dwelling malignancies like Ted Taylor's Thuns, Munir Kreidie's Obul and David Winning's Haragon!
But in the game-expanding world of Changing the Game, who can even a legitimate businessman like Darrel trust? Are his home-town buddies like Sticky Fingaz (Craig Jenkins, Machiavellian Dre himself and ambitious Goldie (Nicoye Banks) safe bets or should he put more faith in his new ivy league compatriots like Marty Levine (Brandon Ruckdashel)? Can even the beautiful women in his life (like the talented Kendia Jones, Mari White and Jessica Czop) truly be trusted? And with all of this surrounding him, how might Darrell trust even himself? The answers to these questions, those that Dowdell and Astillero are willing to give us, come in many surprising ways that, no pun intended, change the game time and time again!
It's important to note the LEVEL of darkness and intrigue we're looking at here. Yes, there are violent clashes (horrific, as I indicated) and some eye-widening explosive moments. However, Darrell isn't Tony Montana, here, but a legitimate, Armani-attired executive. He's never going to face off against the D.E.A. but might have to explain himself to the S.E.C.! The cast and crew of Changing the Game are not trying to make Scarface or American Gangster here, any more than the cast and crew of Train Ride were trying to make The Accused or conjure up wizards and witches for a Harry Potter film or something! This simply is not that type of film. This is not about extreme cases and impossible intrigue and by setting the story so firmly in the real world, Dowdell makes Changing the Game all that much more hard hitting and dramatic. Darrell could be any one of us, or our neighbor, or our son or our best friend.
If anything, Changing the Game gives us echoes of Wall Street (for the modern day) while giving a glimpse of what the main character from Fresh might be like all grown up. However, the happy news and high praise for Changing the Game can be found in the fact that this film is NOT an easily comparable film to other movies even of its kind. It's a very different film from any of these others (including Train Ride) and it stands as very much its own touching, smart and well-layered motion picture.
At the same time, I would be remiss and would, in fact, be doing a disservice to the film and those that worked on it to claim that this is a perfect movie. The story does occasionally suffer from the smaller budget... not in any inept filmmaking way (Rel Dowdell is anything but an inept filmmaker) but in the occasional lighting, sound and color areas. Interestingly enough, the special effects scenes still manage to come off as convincing and realistic. The acting is overall quite good and are well assembled, showing an eye to good chemistry and matching talents. There are, however, a few moments that feel more like "acting" and less like natural expression. An occasional dramatic or heavy scene manages to come off as slightly melodramatic, belying its emotional and intelligent writing, as if the delivery wasn't quite up to the task for certain takes. Again, though, this is occasional and is not a mark of bad acting or directing, but perhaps of budget and timing. Those of you out there who have been on ANY film set, much less an independent set can attest to the expense of delays and the race against the sun as the hour glass holding the schedule down drops its sand quicker and quicker and quicker.
The truth is, however, even with these considerations that do impact the film, Changing the Game is still worth a high rating and the investment of viewer time to watch because it still manages to be that good. This is a credit to the entire cast and crew, but is mostly a credit to the vision behind this film. Rel Dowdell and company went into this project with their eyes open. They knew the story they wanted to tell was a different and unique tale and they strove to make it the best they could. All the while the script asks as many questions as it answers and the skilled direction of Rel Dowdell implies that there are many more answers waiting to be found, perhaps on multiple viewings. Best of all, he holds this film together solidly and it's clear that HE knows the answers that he wants us to find... but is also not about to hit us over the head with them. This is no mere trickery, either... but Machiavelli would be proud of the way this interesting story was orchestrated.
What's my point? If this is what Rel Dowdell creates on this smaller budget... imagine what audiences will get when he's given a much bigger sum to work with. My fingers are crossed!
This very fact should be inspiring to aspiring independent filmmakers. Even with budgetary restraints a true artist with a solid vision can create a very fine film! That's the magic of story-driven movies. They transcend their budgets, subjects... you name it... when the filmmaker truly reaches for the sky! And this one does it very well!
How good is Changing the Game? Even with the flaws I had to point out, I can honestly tell you that it's worth Four Stars out of Five! This is a very smart film, broader in scope to Dowdell's previous film and remarkably rewarding to watch. Remember... this is no larger-than-life fantasy but a special kind of real-world drama. Darrell could be any of us... and any of us could know him. Even in a flawed moment, I challenge anyone to not want to see this story through to the excellent final scene. Changing the Game grabs the audience's attention right away... and won't let it go until the final credits roll. And even then, you might be compelled to watch it all over again!
Keep your eyes open for Tony Todd who has never failed to create a magnificent screen presence in every role I've ever seen him in. He gives yet another surprising performance in a cast full of veteran actors and promising young stars! I'll see you all in The Next Reel!
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reviewed by J.C. Mašek III
Who is solely responsible for the content of this site
And for the fact that he's got big news forthcoming
That might change his own game.
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