Baltimore. Yep, thanks to The Wire, that’s just made you start thinking of shootings, gangsters, and crime in general. LUV, a story about an uncle and his eager nephew, is about exactly that too – surprise.
Vincent, a recently released con (Common) is back in town, and trying to start up a new business on a clean slate. His whisks his nephew (Michael Rainey Jr.) away from school one day, and together they delve into his uncle’s past – long-gestating grudges and a lot of owed money await them. LUV never feels like your typical crime drama, though superficially it always appears like one.
The dark beating heart of the story makes for splendidly inventive set pieces in LUV. In one instance, Vincent and Woody must carry out a seedy swap with a mob of drug dealers. However, they are afraid they’ll recognise Vincent from his past days; they decide on a ballsy move, which involves a simple yet effective idea that gets them through it. Just. The script is full of ideas that turn particular tropes of the genre on its head, but never enough to make it feel anything but a crime-come-redemption movie. For a man portrayed as a narcissist, we come to respect Vincent as a very flawed but ultimately forward-looking fellow human being.
However, LUV never fully pays off on the scope promised by the opening dream sequence and ethereal ambiguity, but it’s still beneficiary to have that extra layer – though thin – of thematic gravity running beneath the much more linear storyline. Another positive is the inclusion of some fantastic music; well-chosen instrumentals bolster the more affecting scenes: while you may have generic gangster rap playing in your head during the violence and snappy colloquialisms of Baltimore, that stereotype is offset by the inspired inclusion of music from the likes of Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros.
Despite all its surface jazz, LUV is a very different movie underneath. This is what makes it feel rather special; no matter what clichéd situation the unlikely duo find themselves in (the drug-dealer’s apartment stand-off; the double-agent family member), the two’s on-screen relationship remains the basis for everything else to bounce off. Rainey Jr.’s performance is a revelation for child actors; he provides the bedrock for us.
Essentially an alternative coming-of-age tale, LUV is occasionally powerful, occasionally incomprehensible, but consistently compelling. As Dennis Haysbert’s character declares, ‘America ain’t a country. It’s a company.’