The Charm of John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, and Teyonah Parris Can’t Be Imitated in They Cloned Tyrone

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The Charm of John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, and Teyonah Parris Can’t Be Imitated in They Cloned Tyrone

There are period films that revel in accumulating accurate and/or eye-catching details of production design and costumes to evoke a particular era, and science fiction films that world-build with all of the imagination their budget can afford (though maybe not as many of those as we’d like). Juel Taylor’s They Cloned Tyrone occupies a fascinating middle ground between the two: A more-or-less contemporary movie that looks like a period piece, and a sci-fi picture that stashes its wildest elements underground, sometimes literally. It has a tinge of Blaxploitation that stops shy of parody – a visual sense underlining the way that urban neighborhoods can be left behind as time marches on, lending them a sense of both neglect and integrity.

The movie starts out following Fontaine (John Boyega), a drug dealer in an enclave of an unnamed city, referred to only as the Glen. Mostly, his workday entails collecting debts, as well as light maiming – at one point, he hits another dealer with his car. Despite this attack, Fontaine doesn’t seem like he’s itching to resort to violence; while hitting up local pimp Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) for some money, he’s appropriately threatening but not ice cold. He’d rather just get his money and keep on grinding.

Just after his visit to Slick Charles, there’s evidence that this head-down, money-first approach is preferable, as Fontaine’s earlier foray into vengeance comes back around, and the wounded dealer and his flunkies shoot Fontaine dead. Or so it seems. He awakes with a start, back in his home, and proceeds through the same routine we’ve already seen: Checking on his mom, swinging by the liquor store, collecting debts. Slick Charles and one of “his” girls, the perpetually dissatisfied Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), are particularly surprised to see him, because they’re pretty sure they saw him die. This unlikely trio – the taciturn Fontaine, the goofier and citrus-obsessed Slick Charles, and the Nancy Drew-inspired Yo-Yo – team up for an impromptu investigation, as Fontaine realizes he didn’t just have a particularly strange and vivid dream. They stow away in vans, swipe key cards, and discover unsettling sources for a number of Black-targeted products.

The heart of the film is right there in the title, in more ways than one. It both tips the movie’s hand about the broad outline of where the movie is going – yes, literal clones are involved – and is cleverly elusive about the specific meaning (no, none of the main characters are named Tyrone). Nonetheless, there are times when the sci-fi plotting feels secondhand, and not up to its seeming influences: Sillier and less thrilling than a Jordan Peele horror-thriller, not as comically audacious as the Boots Riley comedy Sorry to Bother You, less charmingly handmade than a Michel Gondry movie.

On a scene-by-scene basis, though, They Cloned Tyrone is well-crafted entertainment, buoyed by its three major performances. Boyega affects a stoic movie-star minimalism in the tradition of Clint Eastwood or the more restrained performances of Tommy Lee Jones, making his brief moments of levity all the more effective. Foxx, outfitted in stereotypical pimp gear, makes a potentially doofus-y (or even, depending on the context, kind of vile) character likable in his oddly chipper demeanor and oddball references. (In general, the movie’s pop-culture references are just about perfect: Not obscure for obscurity’s sake, but left-of-center enough for genuine novelty.) And Parris in particular feels like a revelation, a firecracker amateur detective who knows her way around funny banter. A wider release of this Netflix movie might have made her a star.

Though all three actors have been successful elsewhere, their strong work here is no small thing; Foxx and Parris have both been mis- or under-used in the past, and Juel Taylor, directing his first feature, gives them characters worth caring about and frames them like stars. Taylor also has a keen sense of economy in shooting the characters’ surroundings; he often moves the camera rather than cutting, taking in geography and background characters that make the textures of the Glen feel believable real, even as the grain in Ken Seng’s cinematography (probably digital impersonating film, but, if so, doing a bang-up job) and the visibility of older technology heighten its out-of-time qualities, mixing bits and pieces of ’70s, ’90s and contemporary touchstones. (Again, those throw-away cultural references help: Joking about Hollow Man is way funnier than making yet another Game of Thrones crack.)

They Cloned Tyrone suffers a little from what might uncharitably be called Netflix bloat – it never feels especially self-indulgent (which is to say its indulgences are largely welcome and part of what gives the movie its character), but you mostly understand where it’s going well before it inches over the two-hour mark. Taylor and his co-writer Tony Rettenmaier make some smart implications about cultural assimilation and, eventually, the process of opting in to your own exploitation. What sets the movie apart from so many post-Get Out sociological thrillers, though, is the cleverness and style of the path Taylor lays out for his endearing characters.

Director: Juel Taylor
Writer: Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier
Starring: John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, Teyonah Parris, Kiefer Sutherland, David Alan Grier
Release Date: July 21, 2023 (Netflix)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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