Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s 1998 Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re looking back at some of the movies of that bygone year.
Belly was a box-office bomb, and it got ravaged by critics. The entire production was a disaster. Writer and director Hype Williams—a music-video visionary helming his first feature—blew huge portions of his $3 million budget in just the first couple of days, filming a black-lit shootout at legendary nightclub Tunnel like he had Def Jam money to blow. Nas struggled with his line readings, and shared top billing, after a long search, with the then-unknown Yonkers barker DMX. A veteran acting coach was brought on to help, and was eventually pressed into service himself, but didn’t want to shave his head for the role and so performs blurred out. Numerous big-name cameos fell through. Louis Farrakhan was possibly on board to play a minister in the film’s final act but backed out. Gwen Stefani’s cameo also failed to materialize, for unknowable reasons possibly related to the fact that her character was going to be beheaded. The rapper Shyheim says he was ready for a quick guest spot but the car never came to pick him up, maybe because Nas didn’t like him. Hype Williams, still a reclusive figure 20 years later despite an enduring status as the glitziest pop-video director ever, fought with producers daily over budgetary shortfalls. He’d get his shots in guerrilla-style and lose pages from the script in order to stretch the money. Despite a handful of development-hell possibilities, he’s never directed another feature.
This is a shame, because Belly is mana for both ’90s-fetishizing rap nerds (raises hand) and fans of ambitious, hallucinatory genre fare (raises other hand). The plot—co-written by Nas—is all terse logistics, following a pair of stick-up kids who fall down a rabbit hole of bad luck and worse decisions, with tough philosophical reveries sprouting in between all the business-minded maneuvering. And maneuver they do, starting in Queens before making lingering detours in Omaha, Atlanta, Jamaica, and more. Williams lavishes attention on the locales like they’re each the centerpiece of a new video, shot with low-angle fisheye lenses and infused with a post-Goodfellas hyperactivity. Alternating voice-overs, freeze-frames, split-screens, slow-motion, delirious floods of red and blue and luminous black light—all are fair game. He captures barbershops and New York basketball courts and Jamaican dance halls with a grainy authenticity, but pairs them with surrealist detours unlike anything in the post-Tarantino crime-caper boom. Early in the movie, DMX’s character famously throws on Gummo to relax, post-heist, in his ascetic Clockwork Orange-style mansion; later, his concubine calls him longingly from bed, a high-gloss video of the two of them having sex playing behind her. The movie—set in the future of 1999, and ticking month by month and then second by second to the new year—climaxes in an ornate, gothic concert hall, with a dreamy sermon ushering in the impending millennium. Then it’s over.
“Ambitious” doesn’t begin to describe it. Belly is far from a perfect film, but it radiates talent, both from Williams and the musicians he captured at their commercial and artistic peak. As the tellingly named “Sincere,” Nas plays the conscious, quiet gangster, eventually ditching his life of crime for one in Africa. While the first-time actor struggles hilariously with his more tender lines, he’s right at home musing philosophically to a kid headed down the wrong path. Williams knows exactly how to play to the rapper’s real-life image as a boy-wonder poet, a trick he pulls again with DMX, also making his acting debut, who inhabits his character with a prowling, alpha-male energy. Williams took a risk on the rapper, who had yet to release a record when filming began but ended up releasing a debut just a few months before Belly and a follow-up just a few months after. Both were smashes. His guttural, haunted music was way ahead of its time—every sad SoundCloud rapper on the planet owes him their face tattoos—and Williams captured his star right at its ascendancy. X never recaptured the glory of ’98, but Belly stands as testament to the ferocity and charisma that made him famous. It’s also a testament to the narrative film career Williams might’ve had. Belly can be laughable and it sometimes falls flat on its face, but the movie’s action scenes and sense of place exhibit preternatural skill. And, if it even needs to be said, the director’s love of music is palpable, turning tracks like Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” and D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” into moments of bleary, blunt-puffing beauty.
Availability: Belly is available to rent or purchase from the major digital services. It can also be obtained on Blu-ray or DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.