``CB4: Rap's 'Spinal Tap

March 12, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"CB4" doesn't have a nice thing to say about anybody, which is what's good about it.

Billed as rap's "Spinal Tap," it lacks the sophisticated humor or form of that masterpiece and all too frequently runs out of ideas into long bland stretches. But it's very, very funny when it's on, and it boasts energy to burn.

Borrowing from "Spinal Tap" the device of the mock documentary, it chronicles the rise, fall and rise again of the rap group CB4, off the mean streets of Locash, Calif. These are "gangsta" rappers at their scariest: In the heavy overcoats that -- guard their bulk, their demeanor mean and sullen, their rhymes blunt and penetrating, they grind out the gangster's code of domination, dope and dumdum bullets. Mess with these dudes, suggests their ominous on-stage appearance, bulwarked by a stark jail-house set and gushing undulations of fog, and you will be chilled into history its own self.

The names carry the meaning, Jack. CB4 itself is an abbreviation for Cell Block 4, supposedly the meanest quadrant in the big house. The gangsters who go under this sobriquet look as if they've logged their time in its unlovely corridors and upon its brutal yard: First there's MC Gusto, scrawny but deadly; then Dead Mike, the most in-your-face Afrocentric; and then the sybaritic Stab Master Arson, a blimp-like figure of menace who DJs in the background.

The filmmaker A. White (Chris Elliott) is just eating this up. The ruder to him they are, the more contemptuous and dismissive, the more he likes it. He's one of those wannabes who hates the color of his own skin and pines to join another group, which of course wouldn't have him for a second. He's so into it that he doesn't see the significant problem with CB4: The group is completely fake.

MC Gusto is actually mild-mannered Albert Brown ("Saturday Night Live's" Chris Rock), son of the local Roto-Rooter guy; Dead Mike is Euripides Smalls (Allen Payne, and how scary can he be -- he was on "Cosby"); and finally Stab Master Arson is Otis A. Otis (Deezer D.), who lives in a houseful of sisters, each and every one of whom he loves deeply.

These three entirely pleasant young men lived and breathed rap; they even had some talent. What they didn't have was an image. So they helped themselves to the darkest, dankest theme in street life, that recurring obsession with masculine pride that brooks no disrespect, responds to all stimulus with brutal authority, and speaks most eloquently with Mr. 9-millimeter -- that spirit so eulogized in gangsta rap.

The young men, in short, talk the talk. Significant Problem No. 2: They don't walk the walk.

This becomes evident when the true gangster Gusto (Charlie Murphy, and if the grin looks familiar, check out that last name), from whom Albert stole his name and his inspiration, breaks out of jail and tries to reclaim his identity. Bad career move, Albert.

"CB4" is much better when it just improvises on the presence of rap in our society than when it attempts to tell a story. In fact, it doesn't tell much of a story. It simply follows as the real Gusto tries to catch up to Albert at the same time a self-serving politician, played by another "SNL" actor, Phil Hartman, tries to use the group as the fulcrum for a campaign. Almost nothing is worked out, and each major plot point fizzles into inanity. Nothing builds: The climax is a big So What?

But when the group is parodying rap music and the music business, it's dead-on. I leave to the cognizant to point out the cleverness of the lyrics and how they send up rap classics in smart ways; what I enjoyed was its vivid acknowledgment of the way in which rap and rap attitudes have broken out of racial groupings and seized the imagination of children of all hue and color. It shrewdly observes and exaggerates the conceits of rock videos and has puckish fun with such entertainment industry realities as groupies. (Khandi Alexander has a nice turn as the most rapacious of them.)

"Spinal Tap" it's not, but what is?

"CB4"

Starring Chris Rock, Allen Payne and Deezer D.

Directed by Tamra Davis.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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