Baby Boy (15)

Review by Jack Foley

TEN years after dazzling audiences with his debut, Boyz N The Hood, director John Singleton returns to the gang-ridden streets of southern California for what has been described as a thematic sequel. Baby Boy, while not as groundbreaking or as gutsy, as its predecessor, remains a compelling piece of film-making and a strong reminder of why Singleton remains one of the most important black directors of his current generation.

Tyrese Gibson stars as the 'baby boy' of the title, a laidback twenty-something reluctant to assume the responsibilities of adulthood despite the fact he has two children with two different mothers. Hence, he would rather live with his mother, bum around with his friends and visit whichever of his women takes his fancy - usually the one that nags him the least.

But Gibson's Jody has some harsh realities to face up to. For starters, his mother (AJ Johnson) has met a new boyfriend (Ving Rhames' former gangster-turned-gardener) and no longer wants him kicking around, while his girlfriends - notably Taraji P Henson's Yvette - want him to make a choice and accept his paternal status. His best friend, played by Omar Gooding (Cuba's brother) is constantly flirting with the law and his life is about to be threatened by the emergence of Yvette's former boyfriend, just freshly released from prison (Snoop Dogg).

And try as hard as he might, Jody realises he must confront his challenges head on, rather than seeking refuge in the arms of his mother.

Baby Boy, while at times preachy and way too long (it runs in excess of two hours), isn't as heavy-handed in its approach as its subject matter suggests it might be. Sure, Jody has to grow up - and is told to on numerous occasions - but Singleton refrains from allowing his film to become too over-bearing. Hence, there is a lot of humour to lighten the proceedings, while several of the supporting players (and Rhames, in particular) help to create a nice diversion.

And when matters come to a head, Singleton knows how to crank up the tension, using flashback, dream sequences and some powerful imagery to keep audiences on their toes guessing as to what is real and what is imagined. Just as he did with Boyz N The Hood, the director also manages to pack an unbelievable amount of tension into proceedings where necessary and, by spending so much time with the characters, allows audiences to genuinely care what happens to them.

It's just a shame that the conclusion isn't more rewarding, for there is a feeling, when watching the closing credits, that Singleton has somewhat pandered to the masses. You'll know what I mean, believe me.

Baby Boy, unfortunately, is getting a limited London release, which will certainly limit its appeal and availability, but for those who were impressed by the director's debut and wondered whether he would ever return to its subject matter after the commercial success of Shaft, this is a suitably pertinent journey through LA's black community backed up by some telling performances from the likes of newcomers Gibson and Gooding (names to look out for) and an ever-reliable, scene-stealing turn from Rhames.