(Ed. Note: This review was originally published in January after a screening at the Sundance Film Festival. We’re republishing it in conjunction with the film’s HBO Max release.)
With its young-black-men-on-dirtbikes-doing-wheelies-through-the-city imagery, Charm City Kings was one of those Sundance titles that just jumped off the program page. Inspired by the 2013 documentary, 12 O’Clock Boys, about a famous clique of Baltimore dirtbikers (12 o’clock is the position of the bike in a wheelie, get it?), the film casts real Baltimore riders like Lakeyria “Wheelie Queen” Doughty and young actors alongside rapper Meek Mill and veterans like Teyonah Harris (Chi-Raq, If Beale Street Could Talk) for a movie that’s essentially Boyz n the Hood meets A Bronx Tale set in the world of urban dirtbiking. Credit where credit’s due, that’s a pretty damn good hook.
Jahi Di’Allo Winston plays Mouse, a smart seventh grader living with a single mom and running with a squad of buddies that includes a chubby kid (Sweartagawd, played by Kezii Curtis) and a hard kid (Lamont, played by Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) — trying to score chicks and become men while staying out of trouble, just like Boyz n the Hood. Mouse idolizes his dead older brother, a legendary 12 O’Clock Boy named Stro, and crushes on a new girl in town named Nicki (Chandler Dupont), who is into photography, just like… well, just like every teen movie love interest ever.
Mouse comes to be torn between two father figures — a cop from the big brothers program played by William Catlett, who wants Mouse to quit dirtbiking and focus on veterinary school, and a legendary ex-con rider trying to go straight as a mechanic played by Meek Mill, who encourages Mouse to use dirtbiking as a way to stay away from those corners. It’s a dynamic that producer Caleeb Pinkett (yes, Jada’s brother) said was inspired by A Bronx Tale (in which Lillo Brancato was torn between a gangster played by Chazz Palminteri and his hard-working truck driver father played by Robert De Niro).
Charm City Kings has a slick pitch and even slicker direction, by Puerto Rican Angel Miguel Soto, but you get the feeling Charm City Kings‘ creatives were hired guns brought in to flesh out what some producer assumed would be an extremely sellable concept. It’s one of those movies that practically screams the Hollywood shorthand that spawned it — TWELVE O CLOCK BOYS MEETS BOYZ N THE HOOD AND A BRONX TALE — but never evolves much beyond the pitch. Why Baltimore? Why 12 O Clock Boys? Outside of a couple jargon explainers and sizzle reel scenes, it feels like this story could’ve been set anywhere. Mouse’s mom never quite screams “ain’t no dirt bikes gonna put no food on this table!” but that’s gist of it.
At the post-screening Q&A, producer Pinkett explained that the idea behind the film was that because of Baltimore’s “no chase” policy (police brass don’t want to start a high speed chase over illegal dirt biking and end up hurting civilians), the bikes became the only place these otherwise overpoliced twelve o clock boys “could feel free.”
That’s great marketing copy, but as inspiration it’s a little thin. (Screenwriter Sherman Payne helpfully explained “they brought me on to write the script, and I wrote the script”). The intention seems to be to use Baltimore as a stand-in for disaffected youth trying to escape oppression and poverty everywhere. That’s pretty ambitious, but you have to be somewhere before you can be everywhere. Meanwhile, Charm City Kings is long on tried-and-true story arcs and short on specifics. I could listen to that peculiar Baltimore accent all day (say it with me: “Aaron earned an iron urn”), but while CCK feels authentically cast and acted (with a notable turn from Meek Mill) the story feels plug-and-play.
It has a cool setting, solid acting, impressive stunts and beautiful shots, but its setting seems like a place the filmmakers thought looked cool rather than one they actually knew.