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Writer and Director Ricky Staub adapts Gergory Neri’s “Ghetto Cowboy,” itself based on the real life phenomenon of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in North Philadelphia, into the movie Concrete Cowboy. The film follows fictional lead Cole as he spends a summer with his estranged father, and Urban Horse Rider, Harp. Cole also contends with the influence of childhood friend Smush, and his burgeoning criminal enterprise.
This movie is really simple and rather weird to review. There are elements which might endear a lot of people to this movie, but few of them are actual merits. It’s simple, charming and rather comfortable, well-worn ground. Sadly, it’s also poorly written, and plays on tropes which aren’t necessarily used appropriately, nor are they helpful to this story. It’s not entirely clear whether this is entirely due to Staub and Dan Walser’s script, or whether elements could be attributed to Neri’s original novel, but either way it would still be true that the problems are true in this film.
Dense as Concrete
The film is largely nonsensical when thoroughly examined. Few things are set up and paid often in logical ways, and basic elements of storytelling are thoroughly dragged through the mud. The film fails to clearly set up Harp and Cole’s relationship until over halfway through the film, despite it being the cornerstone of the film’s themes. There’s also an exorbitant amount of time wasted on a subplot about Cole’s criminal friend, which is plotline which has been beaten to death in films about black people.
The movie is actually rather inappropriately interested in black criminality. It’s the thing which defines Harp and Cole’s relationship for virtually no reason. One of the main conflicts of the film is whether Cole is going to hangout with his friend who’s a criminal, despite there being any development which would lead the viewer to believe Cole is the type of person who would want to commit criminal acts. It’s an element of the plot which completely overruns the far more unique and interesting plot points regarding the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club.
This element of the plot is completely underserved as well. There are so many really interesting sociological realities, such as gentrification, historical erasure, wealth inequality, etc. which distinctly affect these characters yet go completely unaddressed. There are also so many interesting questions which could be addressed which surround the themes of cowboys, manifest destiny and how the heroic law enforcer isn’t heroic to anyone. None of this is explored though.
Worse than what they don’t get to, and the cliché of what they give, is how it actually plays out. There is no developmental arc which makes any sense in this movie.
The film also rather inappropriately extolls the veracity and necessity of hard work paying off, going so far to express the need to break people like horses. This is in spite of one character noting that sometimes he goes without food to feed his horse, and most all of these characters live in poverty. Harp doesn’t have food in the fridge. So it makes no sense to claim that people should break themselves to achieve this life of squalor.
Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
This is just a few of the poor choices which make the film’s script so bad. This is such a shame too because many of the film’s actors really show up here, Caleb McLaughlin as Cole especially. Throughout the film he displays a range of really genuine emotions which make his character incredibly easy to empathize with. He’s able to convey things which are absolutely not in this script.
Together with Idris Elba as Harp, they pull off a minor miracle making Harp and Cole’s relationship somewhat worth investing in, despite what they’re working with. It’s truly a crime how little Elba is given to work with here compared to his performance, which utilizes his typical charisma but leverages some lite body and posture work that makes the character of Harp standout.
Each of the supporting characters, despite being rather thin, is enjoyable. They’re likable, and the inclusion of actual Fletcher Street riders as some of the supporting cast is pulled off respectfully and well. Paris, played by Jamil Prattis, is the standout with a really honest, emotive performance for a first time actor.
There’s lots of other small things that could be addressed in this film, but it’s rather simple in the end. McLaughlin, Elba and the entire cast are completely undersold by an uninspired, directionless and nonsensical script which has no contextual or cultural awareness. It’s a testament to their work that the film narrowly escapes being a drag, and never quite feels like work. It’s a shame that this is the product which viewers receive when it originates from such a unique starting place.
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