Film Review – They Cloned Tyrone
They Cloned Tyrone
They Cloned Tyrone (2023) is a clever, entertaining, and imaginative movie. In his feature length debut, director Juel Taylor (who also cowrites with Tony Rettenmaier) gives respect to a whole plethora of genres. There are references to everything from blaxploitation, sci-fi, and horror films. While watching it, I was reminded of A Clockwork Orange (1971), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Get Out (2017), and the work of John Carpenter. But just because it pulls from many different facets does not mean the final result lacks its own personality. In fact, the reason this works is because it has such a distinctive identity. Although I’m not sure it sticks the landing, it starts out so strong that I was willing to look past those minor quibbles.
The narrative is anchored by three performances all working in sync with one another. John Boyega, Teyonah Parris, and Jamie Foxx all shine as a trio of unconventional heroes. Boyega is Fontaine, a stone faced drug dealer haunted by the death of a younger brother and a mother he rarely sees. Foxx plays Slick Charles, a pimp who owes Fontaine money. In between them is Yo-Yo (Parris), one of Slick Charles’ sex workers who isn’t afraid to speak up and take charge of a situation. Each of the three are excellent in their respective parts, taking advantage of their opportunities and never undermining the other two. They take what could be seen as black stereotypes and subvert them, creating unique individuals. It’s a good mix of character traits. Where Fontaine is deadly serious, Slick Charles is the comedic relief, while Yo-Yo is more ambitious. Their chemistry carries the runtime, especially when things go haywire.
And boy does it! The writing and direction opens with a straightforward set up and then tosses everything we assumed out of the window. After meeting with Slick Charles to collect some unpaid dues, Fontaine is unsuspectingly shot down. But don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler. The very next day, Fontaine wakes up and goes about his business as if nothing had happened. How can this be? Obviously, Fontaine coming back from the dead shocks and horrifies both Slick Charles and Yo-Yo, and thus the three decide to join forces and investigate what is going on.
It’s this section – where our protagonists unravel the conspiracy of their neighborhood – where Taylor’s film really takes flight. This is where the sci-fi/horror elements come into play, as the layers are pulled back to reveal an entire social structure built on racial and economic inequalities. Ken Seng’s cinematography takes on a gritty aesthetic, bathing the frame with heavy fog and neon lights. The effect is otherworldly, especially during night scenes. Fontaine, Slick Charles, and Yo-Yo descend into the underbelly of their community, only to discover a sinister plot working against them and others. The writing and direction delivers the information in creative ways. Consumer products, beverages, food, music, religious congregations – all these details are examined in order to understand their roles within a community from a positive and negative perspective. Watching the trio put the pieces together, along with their reactions, make for some of the best (and funniest) moments.
How it all resolves is not as successful. They Cloned Tyrone works best as a mystery, with our sleuths digging their way deeper down the rabbit hole. Once all the secrets are revealed, a little bit of the luster dissipates. The introduction of another character – played by Kiefer Sutherland – turns the narrative into an exposition dump, where every stone is turned and every question is answered. From that point on, the plot becomes mechanical, as Fontaine, Slick Charles, and Yo-Yo spring into action to upend the order of things. Granted, there are some fun sequences during this section, and the avenues Taylor brings us take on a Stranger Things kind of vibe. But the strength of the first half create an imbalance once we transition toward the climax.
But that isn’t to say this wasn’t a fun ride. There is a playful energy all throughout, with the pacing never letting up from beginning to end. Saira Haider’s editing skips along, becoming more erratic as characters realize their world is not what it appears to be. Several shots of Fontaine waking up in bed take on a Groundhog Day (1993) effect, with his daily routine being slightly altered as new information is gathered. Although the setting is seemingly in the present – there’s talk of “cryptocurrency” and “bitcoin” – the production design takes on a clear retro aesthetic. From the funk music, clothing, hair style, cars, and dialogue, the film makes reference to 1970s black culture. The fact that these components coincide with a sci-fi comedy adventure make for a fascinating and entertaining viewing experience.
I’ve compared They Cloned Tyrone to numerous other films and television shows. In that way, it proves itself a product of what has come, but with the capacity to stand entirely on its own. I had a lot of fun with this one – it’s an entertaining ride filled with strong performances and important social themes. Although it doesn’t end as well as it begins, there is a lot to like here. And if it starts a dialogue over its messaging, then that is just an added bonus. In his debut, Taylor has established himself as an inventive cinematic voice. I look forward to watching how well his skill set develops with each new project.