Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" is surreal, preachy, and rarely dull, if tortuously muddled

When it comes to prolific, controversial voices in New York film, Spike Lee and Woody Allen are like two uncles you only see once a year. Woody's really got only one or two stories he likes to tell around the dinner table. You've heard them before, but you listen, mostly out of nostalgia for how much you liked him when you were younger and knew less of his past. Spike's got a lot of stories too, but it isn't the tale he tells that keeps you glued to your seat near the barbecue grill. It's his tone. The voracity with which he demands his voice be heard. He's so charismatic with his gesticulation that you can't help but lend an enraptured ear, even though, given precedent, at some point he's going to say something you vehemently disagree with, or something that doesn't make any goddamn sense at all.

As Woody has been known to employ new tricks when his films' settings veer from his beloved Big Apple, Spike, too, shows a curious new urgency when he travels. In "Chi-Raq," we're treated to the motion picture as wailing klaxon, an emergency warning system for a city in crisis. If you're seeking a resonant, meditated look at Chicago's gang violence epidemic, you should keep the search going, because this is as brash and kaleidoscopic a hot take as you're bound to find. Somewhere between the musical theatricality of "School Daze" and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink absurdism of "She Hate Me," we find Lee more riled up than he's been in years, even if that passion and verve is fired off with the indiscriminate spray of an AK-47, rather than the laser-like sniper's focus of his earlier work. Seriously, this flick makes "Do The Right Thing" feel like "Annie Hall."

Loosely adapted from the ancient Greek comedy "Lysistrata" and set in summer 2015, "Chi-Raq" opens up like a YouTube lyric video as Nick Cannon's titular rapper/gang leader spits the film's theme off screen while his rhymes appear in bright, emboldened red lettering. Chi-Raq, nee Demetrius Dupree, leads a purple-clad gang called The Spartans, entrenched in a feud with Cyclops (a delightfully weird Wesley Snipes) and his orange-threaded Trojans. A shooting at one of Chi-Raq's shows leads to his apartment being set on fire, and a retaliatory shooting kills a little girl named Patti in the process. Patti's mother Irene, played by a perpetually histrionic Jennifer Hudson, makes an accusatory impression on Chi-Raq's main squeeze Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), leading her to a path of enlightenment under the tutelage of Miss Helen (Angela Bassett). Lysistrata becomes a reluctant revolutionary by urging the city's women to vow celibacy until the gangs lay down their guns, a wildfire movement that slowly spreads across the globe.

Parris is a revelation. With standout turns on "Mad Men" and in "Dear White People" already under her belt, she's positively incendiary here, owning every moment and stealing every scene from a game cast. Her screen presence is so outsized that she cuts through the minefield of Lee's gender politics. What complexity Lysistrata lacks in the pages of Lee and Kevin Willmott's script, Parris deftly improvises, succeeding as a multidimensional feminist figure in the world of a filmmaker who historically has difficulty seeing women as anything other than haughty and whorish, or monoliths of matronly strength. That Parris makes the best of an otherwise questionable exploration of the patriarchal tether sex holds to violence is a towering testament to her talent, an admirable display that more than makes up for the churlish tenor of Lee's lecturing. For every empowering scene of Lysistrata's group holding fast to their principles, there's a frightening id let loose, led by Steve Harris and a host of non-gang members fighting back at the dearth of nookie. Their all-too-plentiful scenes play like echo chambers of masculine vitriol. You want to read these interludes as a critique of this mindset, but then you remember that in real life Lee thinks a movement like Lysistrata's could end campus rape for college students. Even as he ages on, he's still got a little Mars Blackmon in him.

For a while there, this crazy train stays on the rails, chugging along with a wit and an intensity that plows through any notion of narrative logic or sustained realism. At its worst, it's hard to see the film as anything more than an overlong response to Lee seeing his first Chief Keef music video, but when it really sings, it's absolutely rapturous. Matthew Libatique's sharp cinematography pairs well with the film's art direction, crafting compositions and sequences that breathe and writhe like expressionist snapshots. The characters speak in a hip-hop-inflected update of Greek verse, a somewhat cloying creative choice where every rhyme and stanza presents a potentially clunky bump in the road. Bassett and Dave Chappelle (in a very welcome cameo) make music of the dialogue, but it's Samuel L. Jackson as the film's chorus Dolmedes who crafts such vulgar poetry that it grounds this world enough to overlook the more ridiculous structural transgressions Lee has made.

The more the story, such as it is, progresses, it's clear Lee is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore, but has absolutely no idea what to do with all of that anger. Characters don't grow or change, instead flipping and flopping their respective "wokeness" as the scenes see fit. Events unfold, but with little appreciation for story mechanics, replaced with seemingly random asides laid end to end, interspersed with heartstrings-tugging allusions to real-world tragedy. Greek theater is possessed of a timeless quality that makes it capable of being contorted into a modern retelling, but "Chi-Raq" is so singularly driven by of-the-moment fervor that it barely functions as a film. Name-checking Freddie Gray and Dylann Roof make the film's IRL concerns absolutely transparent, but at times, these reminders of a nation's pain distract from the colorful, surreal world Lee's created. It more closely resembles a real-time scroll of your Facebook news feed, with Uncle Spike sharing poorly filtered Instagram memes and please click to see more rants about the Black Lives Matter movement and income inequality.

Though the message gets repeatedly, torturously muddled, it's the phantasmagoric rapture of Lee's approach that remains as engaging as ever. No living filmmaker is as exciting as Spike Lee when he's on a tear, whether or not he succeeds in getting his point across. Is he a subtle artist? God, no. There's literally a frame in this film where the protruding barrel of a tank has the phrase "Penis Envy" written on it. John Cusack, as a preacher, gives the funeral sermon equivalent of the second verse from Kanye West's 'New Slaves,' spewing prison statistics like self-righteous bile. At one point, the police commissioner attempts to end the "No Peace, No Pussy" movement by blasting The Chi-Lites' 'Oh Girl' at Lysistrata's crew, resulting in a beautifully arranged dance sequence.

In the end, the film offers a conclusion so cartoonishly optimistic as to seem the punch line of a rather lengthy joke, dangling a tragically unrealistic happy ending over a rousing bit of catharsis as hollow as it is telegraphed. The prolonged hot mess gets wrapped up in a neat bow, but that definitive brand of closure draws a curtain over one of the year's most dynamically flawed, but endlessly fascinating pieces of cinema. You can call him out of touch, but don't dare presume Spike Lee dull in the director's chair.

"Chi-Raq," directed by Spike Lee, is now playing at the Charles Theater.

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