The misshapen offspring of Lean On Me and (literally) any prison movie ever made, Charles Winkler's Shackles is precisely the cliché-laden and formulaic sort of social drama you'd expect to find gracing your local "direct to video" racks ... which is precisely where you'll find it.
Interested in seeing the "true" and "honest" side of angst, violence, and hatred among New York City's minority youth -- only filtered through the eyes of two wealthy white moviemakers who've probably never stepped a toe into an "inner city" in their lives? Then skip on down to Blockbuster and be sure to ask for "that movie about black and latino teenagers in prison who are salvaged by the pure and magical influence of ... poetry."
Yes, poetry, folks. Poetry is what director Charles Winkler (son of old-school Hollywood producer Irwin Winkler) and career TV-writer Donald Martin would use to solve all the urban hatred and widespread ghetto violence. And not good poetry, either. If by this point the movie sounds like a confused mish-mash of Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, and HBO's Oz, then you're on the right track.
D.L. Hughley, a guy best known for making wacky faces in situation comedies, gets to "evolve" as a dramatic actor in Shackles. Here the actor plays a disgraced former teacher named Ben Cross. Given that Ben once beat a student into a coma, it's only logical that nobody's scrambling to hire the guy. But when a former associate offers Ben a position teaching English in a juvenile detention center, well, you just know it's going to be second servings of Simplistic Redemption for all parties involved.
Shackles wants to be a gritty prison drama and a speechifying chest-thumper at the same time; both approaches battle for supremacy for much of the flick's first hour, but Martin's borderline-abysmal screenplay veers straight for Platitude Junction in Act III, and the result is a product as transparently "topical" as it is dramatically stillborn.
Mr. Winkler, for some arcane reason, chooses to frame much of his (entirely anemic) story threads in all sorts of split-screens and multi-frames, apparently quite proud of this nifty visual trick that he found in some of De Palma's old movies. In the right sort of movie, I guess the "two movies on the screen at the same time" approach might work, but here it just seems like unnecessary glitz. The director does know how to frame a shot, and his movie does look pretty slick, considering what must have been a fairly meager budget, but whatever visual flair that Shackles has to offer is buried beneath a merciless ton of cliché, stereotype, bromide, and bluster.
For all its oh-so-earnest monologuing about freedom this and truth that, Shackles is nothing but a dreary little button-pusher that's laden with overbaked dramatics, coloring book plot conventions, and annoyingly simplistic answers to several truly difficult questions.
Video: The Widescreen Anamorphic transfer earns a solid B+. There's a fair share of minor grain in many of the darker scenes, but overall the picture quality is pretty strong.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. The 5.1 does a dandy job of bringing you inside the world of gritty prison poetry. Optional subtitles are available in English and French.
Director Charles Winkler, screenwriter David Martin, and producer Rob Cowan get together for a feature-length audio commentary that's full of self-congratulatory perspectives, stone-voiced monotones, and mild delusions of grandeur. The filmmakers speak as if they've crafted the next Do the Right Thing, but since Shackles is a pretty big step up* for these particular filmmakers, a little hubris can be forgiven, I suppose. Still, this convo-track is pretty much dry as dirt. (*Son of a veteran Hollywood mogul, Mr. Winkler cut his teeth directing episodes of Baywatch, The Outer Limits and The Chris Isaak Show, while Mr. Martin's been banging away for years on Canadian TV-movies. Clearly the right guys to trust when talking about the tragic plight of inner-city minority youth.)
Anyway, you'll also get a collection of 11 deleted scenes, viewable individually or in "play all" fashion, and also with optional filmmaker commentary. Have a ball. Rounding out the supplemental section are a pair of audition clips and a bunch of previews for 7 Seconds, Doing Hard Time, Lockdown, and Motives.
However well-intentioned it might be (and I'd question even that), Shackles is one seriously cringe-worthy screenplay buried beneath a malingering handful of "inspirational teacher" concepts that have been tossed into the "angry prisoner" cell. There's nothing here you haven't seen and/or heard before, except for the poetry, that is -- which is hardly worth the price of admission by itself.