The combination of hip-hop and Hollywood is a scary one. On both scenes, egos are stoked to monstrous levels and if you're a hot property nobody will ever say "no". Currently straddling both worlds is director Hype Williams, the man who revolutionised hip-hop videos and, by extension, MTV itself, matching the music's strong sense of excess with cartoonish, melodramatic visuals. But if his big-screen debut Belly is anything to go by, gritty feature-length tales of ghetto life are best left to the likes of Spike Lee or John Singleton.
Rap may be rich in larger-than-life characters and colourful storytelling, but what's usually enough for a four-minute track quickly loses its impact during a full-length movie. Belly tells the familiar tale of young black men trying to break free of the thug life, and rams the message of Islam's redemptive power down the audience's throat. Such earnest simplifications only suffocate the more interesting echoes of The Godfather and Scarface, resulting in failure to exploit the dramatic potential of the vicious, amoral world most gangstas inhabit.
It's obvious that to Williams (who co-wrote with rapper/star Naz), ambivalence is something you use to drive gunshot victims to hospital. Every character lacks depth: there are merely good guys (the tedious Sincere) and bad guys (Method Man's leering Shameek), and none of them can act anyway. Once you've experienced Nas' dead-eyed, dreary delivery, you'll forgive Ice-T for everything - except perhaps Tank Girl.
But on the plus side, Belly is great to look at, with scenes such as the opening nightclub heist and Scarface-style assasination-bid-cum-gun-battle enough to hook any sharp-eyed studio bosses watching. And if Williams finds a new screenwriter and stops casting rappers in central roles, then Belly should assure his chances of making a full move to Hollywoodland.