Although many rookie directors tend to dismiss their past accomplishments before first stepping behind the camera, Kamal Ahmed proudly wears his past on his sleeve. Any self-respecting fan of comedy should remember him as one-half of The Jerky Boys (along with John Brennan), a madcap duo with an exceptional knack for funny phone pranks. Unfortunately, the Jerkies were past their prime by the late 1990s---the peak being a 1995 Grammy Nomination and a feature film---and you can't ride a one-trick pony forever (unless, of course, you're William Shatner).
Soon, Ahmed decided to try his hand at directing, and took many by surprise with his feature film debut, God Has A Rap Sheet (2002). Surprisingly, it didn't turn out to be a no-holds-barred comedy or satire, but a thought-provoking drama about theology, character interplay, and good old-fashioned social commentary (although it's still got a few laughs for good measure). Here's the basic plotline: eight "culturally diverse" men from New York are all arrested for petty crimes and put in a holding cell on a hot summer's night. There's another man who's already been there for awhile, and he's a homeless old man that claims to be God. Overall, it turns out to be quite an unforgettable evening, as these perfect strangers seem to clash on every social hot button: racial differences, philosophy, sexual persuasion...and of course, religion. Naturally, "God" plays as somewhat of a moderator for these men, and the interplay between everyone makes for an interesting premise.
Of course, this film is anything but easy to watch. With non-stop tension created by constant arguing and enough vulgarity to make Frank Rizzo blush, God Has A Rap Sheet doesn't exactly make for an easy Sunday afternoon viewing experience. Essentially, it's a strange concoction of Oz and Do The Right Thing (both personal favorites of yours truly), and that alone makes it really hard to ignore. I've always said the best films are the ones that really spark conversation afterwards, and this is a prime candidate for such a description. If nothing else, God Has A Rap Sheet will really make you think about who you are and how you see others. While it isn't a perfectly seamless effort (see below), this film has enough going for it to make Kamal Ahmed a director to keep you eye on. His sharp ear for dialogue---combined with a highly claustrophobic atmosphere---make this film an interesting effort that earns high marks for originality and entertainment value.
As mentioned earlier, God Has A Rap Sheet does hit a few snags during its 115-minute running time, but the faults are minor considering this is the work of a first-time director. For starters, a few of the characters were little more than caricatures, despite the uniformly strong performances of a relatively unknown cast. That doesn't make them any less interesting to watch---after all, the holding cell is basically a metaphor for the Earth itself---but it does take the viewer "out of the action" to some extent. However, a somewhat more visible misstep is the film's occasional heavy-handedness, which may seem a little too "After-School Special" for some viewers. I can't help but think that with a little more subtlety, God Has A Rap Sheet would have been substantially stronger...but it still remains a strong effort, despite these minor flaws. If anything else, the performance of John Ford Noonan as "God" is worth the price of admission alone, as he really pours everything into the performance.
Despite a nearly non-existent theatrical run, God Has A Rap Sheet has finally made its way to DVD courtesy of Synapse Films. It's dubbed a "Special Edition", and...surprise, surprise, it's a solid enough effort to warrant such a title. Although it isn't nearly as packed as a View Askew disc, there's also a nice little assortment of bonus features that support the film very well. All in all, this is a great release that is worth keeping an eye out for, and just might be one of the better independent films you're likely to see this year. With that said, let's see how this release stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Despite the budget limitations and absence of elaborate set designs, God Has A Rap Sheet looks surprisingly good overall. The transfer has been presented in its original 1.78:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, supervised by director Kamal Ahmed. Although the color palette is drab and the image detail is somewhat lacking, the raw atmosphere present in God Has A Rap Sheet has been preserved well. Hardly demo material, but one of the better-looking independent productions I've seen in quite some time.
Similarly, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround presentation is simple yet equally effective. This is a very claustrophobic movie, and voices can frequently be heard from all around (although the majority of the dialogue is anchored in the center channel). Again, it's nothing fancy, but this is a quality presentation nonetheless. Unfortunately, subtitles have not been provided---and despite the clarity of the dialogue, several chaotic verbal exchanges may be a little hard to make out at first.
Menu Design & Presentation:
Simply designed and executed menus make for easy navigation. This 115-minute film has been divided into 16 chapters, and no layer change was detected. The standard keepcase packaging also includes a chapter listing insert (and the cover design was especially sharp!). Overall, a fine packaging and presentation job indeed.
Also on board here are a number of interesting special features, highlighted by a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Kamal Ahmed. His gift of gab (perhaps best evident with his work on The Jerky Boys) makes for an interesting track, and there's a great amount of information shared here. Among other highlights, Ahmed provides an interesting history of the holding cell used in the movie, as well as a nice run-through of the film's technical aspects. Next up is a brief Behind-The-Scenes Featurette, which doesn't go into any greater detail than the commentary, but provides a nice look at the cast in a more casual manner. Also here, we get the original Promotional Trailer for the film, as well as a handful of Deleted Scenes (the latter is actually presented in anamorphic widescreen!). Lastly, we get a look at the film's Soundtrack, which also includes a dozen audio samples (nice touch!). While these Bonus Features may not seem exciting on paper, everything does a great job of supporting the main feature (especially the Audio Commentary) and makes for a satisfying release all around.
Although this film didn't exactly blow me away in all regards, it definitely took me by surprise...and I'm willing to bet it'll do the same for you! God Has A Rap Sheet is a solid debut from Kamal Ahmed, and a surprisingly mature work for such a young filmmaker. Despite being a little heavy-handed on occasion, this film was refreshing enough to make for an entertaining and thought-provoking experience, and that's enough to make it a success in my book. Thankfully, the DVD treatment is also up to the challenge, offering a decent technical presentation and a nice little mix of bonus features for under $20. All things considered, this is really worth tracking down and easily comes Recommended.
Other Links of Interest
The Official Website of God Has A Rap Sheet
Randy Miller III is a bald-headed art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.