Of the three leads in They Cloned Tyrone, Juel Taylor’s wild conspiracy caper, not one is actually named Tyrone. It’s a slight detail that quickly gets lost once the film — from the very start, in fact — channels its uproarious energy toward a genre-bending romp of bedlam and Blaxploitation, but it nonetheless confirms the sly satirical edge beneath its compelling sheen. John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, and Teyonah Parris star respectively as drug dealer Fontaine, pimp Slick Charles, and prostitute Yo-Yo, an unlikely threesome forged by deeply peculiar circumstances. Fontaine’s life is as unmemorable and compulsively watchable as anybody’s own; staggering out of the neighborhood food mart with a whiskey bottle in hand and scratching off yet another loss on his lotto card, he’s got nothing going on but the routine pleasures of policing his chunk of concrete turf, looking out for a younger stray kid named Junebug (Trayce Malachi), and returning home to his mother, who never seems hungry enough to leave the telly anyway.
But when Fontaine rams a rival dealer with his car, and goes over to Slick Charles’ to collect a debt that same night, the dealer’s homies pull over and gun him down, witnessed by the scorned Yo-Yo as she exits Charles’ abode. Fontaine is dead, real dead, until our camera cuts to his bed as he flumps back into it, very much alive. Something’s amiss alright, and against his otherwise aloof disposition, Fontaine ropes both pimp and ho into his quest to uncover the more nefarious truth. Their various modi operandi (desperation for the dealer, equal parts rash and wary for his sidekicks) converge upon the realization that this truth has shaken up not only their knowledge, but also their very being: people out there are being cloned, replaced, and disposed of underground. Not only this — the very products bought and sold above-ground are now suspiciously infused with some hallucinogenic types which foreground, in hindsight, the neighborhood’s overwhelming stupor.
This neighborhood is called the Glen, lifted straight from the textbooks of low-income poverty and violence. Ethnic unrest isn’t overt on the streets, only because the bulk of the Glen’s denizens are Black; out of all of its tropes, the most striking are its general apathy and lack of enforcement, which contribute to the uncanny artificiality already underpinning the little vignettes of “model” Black stereotyping sprinkled across its blocks. Even before its big reveal(s), They Cloned Tyrone cribs generously from Black surrealism without collapsing into pure vaudeville. Its thematic endeavors recall Get Out and Sorry to Bother You, while the more plot-oriented specifics take inspiration from Free Guy and this year’s vastly inferior Robots, another body-double affair. But the rambunctious mix of glee and perverse absurdity is seldom well-imitated and very much the film’s own.
Much of what enlivens Taylor’s debut boils down to its freneticism and substantive commentary, a combination constrained by current-day political apathy but otherwise befitting the madcap atmosphere it engenders. Swerving hurriedly but affectionately through set pieces of personalities and unwieldy scenarios, our dynamic trio undertake — in the footsteps of Yo-Yo’s childhood idol, Nancy Drew — an almost Herculean task to reclaim their lives, despite all the conspiratorial guns, minds, and spycams pointed at them. It’s soon apparent that conspiracy, the racist and fascist kind, lives and breathes every waking moment — “That is major league. It’s Uncle-motherfucking-Sam,” Slick Charles pithily observes — but even so, Taylor keeps the stakes fresh and afloat throughout with a tonal polyphony of witty expression and resourcefulness that keeps at bay the hokum of lesser peers. Tyrone, even if unseen, unheard, and unknown, is ultimately the apt metonym for a film with both a penchant for crazy, offbeat shenanigans and the reflexivity to hone them.
DIRECTOR: Juel Taylor; CAST: John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, Teyonah Parris; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; STREAMING: July 21; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 2 min.