John Boyega stars as Fontaine, an average citizen of an average community known as The Glen. At first, Fontaine is like a cliché of the “gritty Black drama protagonist” with his distant mother only heard through a door and his dead brother haunting his moral choices. He’s a scowling drug dealer who will likely learn about what matters to him while dodging bullets from those trying to take his turf. We’ve seen that movie. This is not that movie.
After a well-crafted prologue of sorts that sets the community of The Glen as a character itself—filmed with gritty beauty by cinematographer Ken Seng—Fontaine is shot and killed while trying to collect from one of his customers, a pimp named Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx). But then he wakes up the next day and continues his routine as if nothing happened. When he returns to Charles, the former all-star at the Players Ball is more than a little shocked to see him, as is one of his sex workers Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), who witnessed the shooting the night before. The quick-witted Yo-Yo senses this could be like one of those Nancy Drew mysteries she used to love and goes into action, leading the trio to an investigation that uncovers something unimaginable and, well, impossible. Without spoiling it, “They Cloned Tyrone” is almost a Blaxploitation variation on “Cabin in the Woods” in how it suggests an entire operation behind the scenes that’s intent on keeping people in their place. When Fontaine, Charles, and Yo-Yo discover how an entire community’s strings are pulled, they set about to cut them.
Taylor and co-writer Tony Rettenmaier’s script, once on the famous Black List, is consistently inventive and funny. But it wouldn’t work without a trio as talented as Boyega, Parris, and Foxx to deliver it. Each performer brings a different necessary rhythm to the film: Boyega is the stoic, grief-ridden hero; Parris balances his low energy with her high-octane fearlessness; Foxx is mostly comic relief, but never steals focus. And their very different registers blend with excellent comic chemistry as these three unlikely heroes discover that all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard were just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the film’s best moments are simply thanks to how expertly Boyega, Foxx, and Harris work together.
By the time “Tyrone” has played its hand in “what’s going on” in an exposition dump scene with a baddie played with appropriate menace by Kiefer Sutherland, it’s got too little time left to fulfill its set-up. While the final half-hour isn’t bad, it’s more rushed and even traditional than the best parts of that first hour. There are also some ideas here about community and the predetermined roles that we are sometimes forced to play within it that could have been fleshed out a bit more with fewer explanatory monologues.
“They Cloned Tyrone” may bend under the weight of ideas, but it never breaks, largely because of its great ensemble but also because Juel Taylor clearly has an eye and an ambition that screams promise. He may have made a film with nods to classics like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but he uses these cultural touchstones in a manner that feels fresh and new. I have a feeling his career won’t be a clone of anyone else’s.
On Netflix now.