Charm City Kings Review: A finely tuned coming of age thriller with all the right parts
Back before theaters had closed down due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one of the last trailers that I saw was for Charm City Kings – a coming of age crime/thriller with some notable names behind it. Seeing that film was co-written by Barry Jenkins, writer/director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, and being produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith gave it some immediate clout and reasons to be excited. Now that the film has made its way to HBO Max, it’s time to check out if the film is more than just the big names behind it and it’s actually really great.
The film, based on Lotfy Nathan’s 2013 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, takes viewers in the thriving and fast-paced world of motorbikes – a major part of Baltimore’s culture. Every summer, an event called The Ride brings Baltimore residents to the street to watch riders flex the newest bikes and pull off crazy stunts. No one is more entranced and amazed by the culture than Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo) as he dreams of joining the legendary biker gang the Midnight Clique led by a local legend named Blax (Meek Mill). Even though his mother (Teyonah Paris) and a local officer named Rivers (Will Catlett) try to guide Mouse in a better direction so that he doesn’t end up dead like his brother Stro, Mouse can’t resist the pull of the motorbike world and ends up being able to find the in that he’s looking for, but also finds himself in the middle of the violence and conspiracy that comes with the Midnight Clique as real world pressures begin to mount.
Just the sounds of dirt bikes ripping down the street is enough to make me wish that I was able to see the film in theaters just for the sound design alone. Hearing the engines rev in big chase and stunt sequences really gets your heart pumping and the way that director Angel Manuel Solo captures The Ride gives the film such a distinct atmosphere that you really only find The Fast and the Furious movies – the old ones, not the newer ones. Mouse’s whimsical views of the motorbike world and the clear impact that this community has on the general Baltimore community as a whole adds so much depth to the world and the fascination of being rider. Also, the stunts are very impressive, especially for a lower budget film, and kick off a great coming of age story for Mouse.
With his mother and Rivers trying to get Mouse to tap into his love for animals and vie for a future as a veterinarian as well as the sights and sounds of motorbike world drawing him in, it’s easy to see how Mouse is being torn apart by two worlds. While he’s clearly a smart kid with a lot of charm and self-awareness, Mouse is still heavily influenced by peer pressure and his love for motorbikes that not only makes him connected to the outside world, but also to Stro. He’s persistent to earn the respect that his brother had and fill his shoes, but it ultimately could create unforeseen consequences that could cost him his future. As things get worse at home and finances become a major obstacle in Mouse’s possible success, it’s easy to see how Mouse is influenced by outside forces and why he slowly turns to a side that could put him in a deadly situation. Charm City Kings isn’t a story that doesn’t hit the coming of age beats we’re used to, but it’s easy to look past its familiarity with the freshness it brings with these characters and the raw emotion that can be felt within the story.
It also helps that Di’Allo puts in an incredible performance as he makes Mouse’s aspirations and drive instantly compelling and ultimately a loveable character. His innocence is what makes his mistakes easier to forgive and Di’Allo gives additional meaning to his name through his quiet and slightly scared performance. While there’re plenty of times where Mouse is loud and speaks his mind, the times where his inner fears and lack of confidence show end up being more impactful as they put Mouse in some tough spots. Even in moments where Mouse puts himself in a tough situation, Di’Allo reminds us that he is just a kid, even if he doesn’t want to be seen as one, and can see when he makes a mistake, but just might not know how to get out of it. Mouse’s story is one simply about growing up in a tough world and it’s great that that’s reflected in Blax’s story as well.
Although he might be a local legend and a big name in the Midnight Clique, Blax is not the same kind of person he was before, and Mill does an excellent job showcasing this every step of the way. His time in jail and now being on parole makes him not exactly love who he was before, and he doesn’t even reflect on his legacy that proudly. While he might still operate within the same crew, his goals have changed, and he seeks to mentor and guide Mouse and his friends to be better than he or Stro was through hard work and fighting for themselves. He honestly feels like a more modern Mr. Miyagi, which they do reference in the film, with how he tries to set them on the right path, but struggles to maintain power as younger members of the crew become more impressionable and suck them into a criminal lifestyle. He truly embodies a sense of regret and puts it into more admirable actions of redemption that speak to his harsh past that haunts him and makes him as equally likeable as Mouse. Also, I just really enjoyed Mill in the role as the makes all of the pain and hope within Blax real and makes his mentoring very enjoyable.
Charm City Kings is a surefire surprise that lives up to and exceeds the big names behind it through great performances from newer faces, an excellent build-up of the atmospheric motorbike culture in Baltimore, and a thrilling and emotional story that gets its hooks in you quick and never lets go.