Spike Lee's Chi-Raq is neither tragedy nor farce

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      Starring Samuel L. Jackson. Rated 18A.

      In the decades since Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee has courted controversy and tackled big themes, especially in his documentaries. His features don’t get the kind of kudos or distribution he used to enjoy, and while the new one makes a claim for relevance, so far it has mostly courted controversy, for what Chicagoans see as a trivialization of their city’s military-grade mortality rate.

      By now, you’d think Lee would at least know what he’s doing on a technical level. But Chi-Raq—an update of Lysistrata moved to the Windy City—is a mess. The film can’t decide if it’s satire, musical theatre, or a full frontal attack on gang culture. As an artist, Lee doesn’t have to pick a tone, but it would help, especially when the entire film is locked into a rhyming-couplet scheme that the director and cowriter Kevin Willmott figure best captures the flavour of Aristophanes’s fifth-century-BC play about a female sex strike intended to make warriors hit the Pause button.

      The best thing about this concept is its one-man Greek chorus, played by Samuel L. Jackson in an array of garishly coloured suits. The rest of the cast, led by Drumline’s Nick Cannon as a gangbanging rapper and Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris as his hot-number gal pal and the leader of the abstinence pact, seems less comfortable. Jennifer Hudson as a grieving mother, Angela Bassett as a world-wise intellectual, and John Cusack (with his shoe-polish hair) as a rabble-rousing priest all seem to be visiting different movies. And many of the extras in elaborate set pieces stand around stiffly, not knowing what to project.

      Contentwise, Chi-Raq covers the worthiest bases, from the glorification of drugs and guns to the curse of mass incarceration. But instead of fitting too much into a very long 127 minutes, Lee belabours the same points again and again, repeating songs and images he used earlier. Ultimately, this is neither tragedy nor farce. Anybody know the Greek word for boredom?