The idea of a rapper delving into acting has become a cliché move that can result in either a blockbuster hit (Eminem’s 8 Mile) or a box-office dud (50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’). Luckily for Tip “T.I.” Harris, he has an established rapper-turned-actor in his corner to show him the ropes. Produced by Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, ATL finds T.I. making his big-screen debut as Rashad, an Atlanta high school student coming into his own as a man while finding time to roller skate and chase chicks.
Helmed by music video lensman Chris Robinson, the movie vividly captures Atlanta’s often-overlooked roller skate culture while telling the story of Rashad and his crew. The cast of characters is diverse—including Esquire (Jackie Long), who brownnoses with the upper crust as a golf caddy by day and rolls with the homies at night; Brooklyn (Albert Daniels), a New York transplant that always ends up as the butt of the joke; Teddy (Jason Weaver), the slick-talkin’, gold tooth-rockin’ sidekick; and Ant (Evan Ross Naess), Rashad’s impressionable younger brother. Despite having all the right plot ingredients (i.e. parents killed in tragic car accident, threats of bodily harm if local trapper isn’t paid his money, and a family secret that could derail a blossoming relationship) ATL doesn’t spend enough time developing any single character to make viewers emotionally attached.
Although he offers a respectable performance, T.I.’s emotional range is limited to fits of rage accented by flashes of charismatic charm, which actually winds up being his saving grace. The same cocksure swagger that attracts fans to his music permeates through Tip’s onscreen portrayal, making his limited character development forgivable. While established actors Keith David of Something About Mary fame and Mykelti Williamson, who’s best remembered as “Bubba” from Forrest Gump, provide a veteran’s touch to the young cast, the surprise highlight comes courtesy of OutKast’s Big Boi. The ATLien effortlessly portrays a local drug dealer named Marcus with a sinister realism that alone is worth the price of admission.
Billed as “A New American Story,” ATL succeeds in capturing a segment of urban life not often seen on the big screen. While the plotline doesn’t deliver anything we haven’t seem before, Robinson’s mastery of the lens coupled with a balanced cast of players results in an enjoyable picture that should mark the beginning of a respectable alternate career for him and his Trap Star T.I.—ANSLEM SAMUEL