Courtesy Photo
*** stars 108 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, April 16, 1999
Directed by Ted Demme

Starring Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Ned Beatty, Bernie Mac, Clarence Williams III, Bokeem Woodbine, Nick Cassavetes & Rick James


Can't go wrong rental. So much more character an story than just about anything else Murphy or Martin have done. Can't match the best prison movies like "Cool Hand Luke" or "The Shawshank Redeption" but has element of both.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 10/19/99

Murphy, Lawrence tap deep into talent for bittersweet "Life"

By Rob Blackwelder

A surprisingly bittersweet, comedic "Cool Hand Luke," "Life" is more than just an Eddie Murphy comedy or a Martin Lawrence comedy. It's actually layered with substance and is even affecting in its portrayal of the bitterness, depression and fleeting moments of happiness experienced by two falsely imprisoned bootleggers, doing life for a murder they didn't commit.

I'm not saying Murphy and Lawrence aren't damn funny. Of course they are. But for the first time in either of their careers, they're both called on to truly submerge themselves in real characters, and these two comedians with trademark personalities come through remarkably.

Murphy plays a con man and Lawrence a bank clerk rube who are framed for murder by white cops while on a moonshine run in Mississippi, trying to save their skins from a gangster (funk star Rick James) they had both run afoul of at home in New York.

A great augmentative screen pair from their first scene together, their love-hate friendship ping-pongs throughout the story, which spans patches of their prison stay from a quickie, Depression Era conviction through to their infirmary years as old men.

Written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone ("Destiny Turns On the Radio") with a eye for avoiding too many cliches, "Life" contains no characters from central casting. The supporting cast of inmates with silly nicknames -- prison couple Jangle Leg and Biscuit (Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez, Jr.), dim bulb baseball prodigy Can't Get Right (Bokeem Woodbine), etc. -- and even the warden (Nick Cassavetes) and his choleric yes man, Hoppin' Bob (Brent Jennings), are developed into more than just stock players.

With such unexpectedly creative characters to work with and a script of humor mixed with sobriety, inconsistent director Ted Demme ("Monument Ave.," "Beautiful Girls") rises to the occasion along with his two stars.

The picture is smartly paced and edited, often jumping ahead by decades and skipping over repetitive escape attempts, which are played up in the narration. It turns all the more creative and comedic when faced with material that's either obligatory (the inevitable racism, the prison yard fight scene) or pilfered ("Cool Hand Luke" is invoked so often this could almost be considered a remake).

Demonstrating Demme's drive to get something more than generic yuks out of "Life," the film is also instilled with a palpable Southern flavor. It has a hot, humid atmosphere and peeled paint prison barracks with rusty wire gates.

Ultimately it's Murphy's and Lawrence's movie, though, and in years to come it may be pointed to as point at which they began maturing into more adult movies.

"Life" certainly has its flaws -- for instance, different takes in some argument scenes are painfully obvious and the old man makeup used last couple reels is waxy and stiff -- but what counts here is the surprising quality of the performances and the even more unexpected depth.

Put on auto-pilot, "Life" could have been just another low-brow comedy aimed insultingly at inner-city audiences. But with the care that was invested in the movie at every level, it instead became a refreshingly sincere -- and yes, funny -- movie that might, if it makes money, even advance the cause of better black mainstream cinema.

(PS: Stay for the credits. The out-takes are a riot.)

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