Had Elmore Leonard written "Showgirls," the result could very well have been "The Players Club," an uneasy mix of raunch and redemption that's far from a great film, but sure is entertaining.
Filled with oddball characters and enough street attitude to land a contract with Death Row Records, "The Players Club" ultimately fails because its characters are too stereotyped to be fresh and its heroine gets off way too easy. The result is a film not far removed from the blaxploitation flicks of the '70s, films that reveled in their badness (that applies to whichever meaning of "bad" you use).
The film centers on young mom Diana Armstrong (fresh-faced newcomer LisaRaye, a little too fresh-faced for this role), who's determined to earn her college degree without any help from her parents. When working at a shoe store doesn't bring in the money fast enough, she stumbles onto a job that does: stripping at the Players Club, a relentlessly seedy dance joint run by a zoot-suited character known as Dollar Bill (Bernie Mac), for whom the term "two-bit hustler" probably overstates his value by half.
Diana fares well enough and even manages to keep her moral compass pointed in the right direction. But the challenge comes when her cousin Ebony (Monica Calhoun) shows up and decides this is the life for her, too. Only Ebony isn't as strong and ends up being dragged into the usual depths associated with strip clubs.
Dollar Bill, meanwhile, is trying to stay one step ahead of loan shark St. Louis (a very menacing Larry McCoy), who doesn't take kindly to overdue payments.
First-time writer-director Ice Cube has an interesting ear for dialogue -- even if he does get carried away with himself -- and a surprisingly deft way with a camera; "The Players Club" doesn't feel like a first effort at all, which suggests Cube was paying attention while working alongside such talented filmmakers as John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") and Charles Burnett ("The Glass Shield").
Unfortunately, he hasn't yet developed much of a story sense. The plot is strictly by-the-numbers; it's rarely hard predicting what will happen next. And several characters are included more for reasons of convenience than plot. A cop played by John Amos, for instance, exists solely so some clown can remark that he looks just like the father on "Good Times" (Amos, for those who slept through the '70s, was the father on "Good Times"). And a scene between Diana's good-guy boyfriend, Players Club DJ Blue (Jamie Foxx), and her father doesn't make any sense at all, except that it gives TV-vet Foxx the chance to mug for the camera.
The script is also about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Two catch-phrases -- "Use what you got to get what you want" and "Make the money, don't let the money make you" -- are repeated so often, you wonder whether someone's typewriter was sticking.
Still, the film lives up to its name. With this sort of start, Cube could well become a player.
'The Players Club'
Starring LisaRaye, Bernie Mac and Monica Calhoun
Directed by Ice Cube
Released by New Line Cinema
Rated R (sex, language, violence, nudity)
Sun Score: **
Pub Date: 4/08/98