4 Stars

Cloning is a topic that filmmakers have been fascinated with for years. While the roots of the topic are in science-fiction such as Moon or Swan Song, it has found a place in action (The Sixth DayGemini Man), comedy (Multiplicity), and drama (The PrestigeNever Let Me Go). The new film They Cloned Tyrone, from first time feature director Juel Taylor, is a genre melange. In mixing comedy, drama, and sci-fi with a little bit of action, Taylor and his co-writer Tony Rettenmaier have created a smart, satirical film that’s deeper than expected and well worth checking out.

Fontaine (John Boyega) is a drug dealer living in The Glen. When he’s first introduced, a young informant named Junebug (Trayce Malachi) is directing him to another dealer who is moving in on Fontaine’s territory. A no-nonsense kind of guy, Fontaine runs the man over with his car and drives off, leaving the man injured. Fontaine’s next order of business is to track down Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), a pimp who owes him money. Fontaine is assisted by two prostitutes. Biddy (Tamberla Perry) just needs some cash for her information, but Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) has just quit working for Slick and points Fontaine in Slick’s direction as a minor revenge. Fontaine gets his money from Slick, but is trapped in the parking lot by the dealer he ran over earlier and Isaac (J. Alphonse Nicholson), who is that man’s boss and a rival of Fontaine. Fontaine attempts an escape but is shot multiple times. To the audience, and to Slick, watching from outside his motel room, Fontaine certainly seems to be dead. But the film cuts to Fontaine waking up with a start the next morning. He goes again to get his money from Slick, who is rightfully shocked and confused to see Fontaine alive. Slick and Yo-Yo are able to convince Fontaine that something strange is going on, and with Yo-Yo’s help, they track down a vehicle she saw leave the parking lot after Fontaine was shot. Inside a run-down house, they find what appears to be a corporate break room along with an elevator. This leads to an underground laboratory, where chaos ensues. Fontaine leaves Slick and Yo-Yo to keep an eye on a strange looking assistant while he searches the lab. But Slick has already tested a white powder he thinks is cocaine, but which instead just makes him giddy. An accident Yo-Yo has with chemicals leads Slick to shoot the lab worker in surprise. While all of this is going on, Fontaine is stunned because he has found his own dead body, riddled with bullets. The trio gets deeper into a conspiracy involving clones, experimentation, mind control, and racial erasure as the film moves through the rest of its story.

They Cloned Tyrone is a spectacular debut feature. The script from Taylor and Rettenmaier deserves a lot of the credit. It has shades of the advertising satire of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and the outlandish conspiracy elements of Scott Sanders’s Black Dynamite, but uses these elements in exploration of deeper themes, calling to mind the Tuskegee experiments and other horrors visited on Black Americans. It’s a funny film with something to say. Taylor’s directorial decisions are very creative, and show a lot of promise for his future. The Glen is a neighborhood without a time and place. License plates have no reference to states, and the inhabitants are a mix of time periods. Slick dresses like he is straight out of a 70s Blaxploitation film, but Fontaine gives off more of a 90s urban drama vibe. The grainy look of the film feels like an older film, but it’s full of modernish technology. The fantastic, funk-flavored score from Desmond Murray and Pierre Charles mixes on the soundtrack with songs new and old (including a clever re-recording by Erykah Badu of her 90s track “Tyrone”).

The film is also incredibly well served by its cast. All of the leads are given a stock film character template to play with and bring them to surprising life. Boyega, who ends up playing multiple roles, is gruff but thoughtful as Fontaine. He takes charge of the film and gets to show great range. Foxx serves primarily as the cool comic relief, and gives Slick great style. Parris, as the hooker with a heart of gold has an interesting place in the film as the machinations of the story come to light. Yo-Yo is an afterthought of the group behind the plot, but her determination (her literary hero is Nancy Drew) keeps Fontaine and Slick moving forward. Smaller parts are also well cast, from Kiefer Sutherland as the unnamed face of the conspiracy, Leon Lamar as Frog, a street oracle figure whose cryptic words point Fontaine in the right direction, and David Alan Grier in a single scene (and quick later appearance) as a local energetic preacher.

They Cloned Tyrone has the misfortune of being released during the same weekend when the long-awaited Oppenheimer and Barbie will be taking up the attention of many filmgoers. But I hope that this clone story finds an audience, because it’s truly an original.

They Cloned Tyrone is now streaming on Netflix.