It is merely a coincidence that Jamie Foxx stars in They Cloned Tyrone, a new film that challenges our belief in outlandish machinations about the rich and powerful, while also being the subject of absurd conspiracy theories regarding his hospitalization in April. But after watching the film, which streams on Netflix July 21, it seems almost like a premeditated middle finger to the skeptics. Foxx’s slick, wildly entertaining performance in a movie that directly deals with the same type of conspiracy theories is the best revenge toward all of the keyboard warriors who have spent the last four months speculating about his health. Though the film was completed before his hospitalization, the fortuitous timing of They Cloned Tyrone’s release gives Foxx the last laugh without ever having to say a word about it.
The film itself is a delightfully wild romp, a win for Foxx when he needs it most (I’m talking about his terrible vampire Netflix movie, not his illness). Foxx plays Slick Charles, a stereotypical pimp character left over from Blaxploitation’s raucous heyday. Slick has a squeak in both his voice and his leather shoes, a perfect comedic complement to fired-up Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), one of Slick’s girls, and stone-faced Fontaine (John Boyega), a drug dealer caught up in an impending turf war.
Together, the trio inadvertently stumbles upon a government project happening right underneath their noses. They must then set aside their archetypal differences to save each other’s lives. They Cloned Tyrone is the feature-length debut from director and co-writer Juel Taylor, yet it comes across like that of a seasoned directing vet. Taylor crafts a tense, timely mystery that’s brimming with atmosphere, wildly smart, and packed with laughs at every single turn—an instant entry into the modern canon of incisive Black science fiction.
They Cloned Tyrone takes place in a nameless, timeless setting. That’s intentional, as we come to find out; They Cloned Tyrone’s fictional neighborhood, the Glen, is meant to be a stand-in for any low-income neighborhood in America. The Glen is isolated by government inaction, its residents left to fend for themselves in a food desert where crime is a far faster way of supporting your family than any of the available jobs. At first, the film’s striking grainy visual style suggests the ’90s, before references to SpongeBob episodes and Bitcoin muddle the timeline. It might have been a frustrating choice, if Taylor and co-writer Tony Rettenmaier’s script wasn’t so carefully paced.
They Cloned Tyrone starts out as a gritty drama, before its plot folds in on itself, becoming a proper science-fiction film. The movie plays fast and loose with genre, but the thematic styles blend instead of clash. When Fontaine first links up with Slick Charles—looking for the cash that Slick owes him for coke—the two characters seem like they’re from entirely different movies. It’s as if two different reels of celluloid melted together in a fire, and They Cloned Tyrone is the compounded print leftover. While a bit of a head-scratcher in the first 15 minutes, it becomes confoundingly delightful to watch. That is, until Fontaine is shot dead outside Slick’s motel by a competing dealer encroaching on his turf, then wakes up the next morning as if nothing happened.
Once again, They Cloned Tyrone switches gears. But those gears are perfectly oiled, and there are no cogs in this machinery. What happens to Fontaine triggers a truly bombastic series of events, as he shows up at Slick Rick’s motel the next night and tries to shake him down for the same cash Fontaine is owed. “Motherfucker, you send a ghost to a pimp?” Slick pleads to God, looking to the heavens as Fontaine pounds on the door. Slick manages to convince Fontaine that he’s telling the truth when he says Fontaine was killed. It helps that Slick is able to disarm Fontaine through confusion, going on a panicked rant where Slick references his “haberdasheries,” in a pointedly genius bit of dialogue that reflects ’80s pimp character nonsense.
Slick and Fontaine meet up with Yo-Yo, who witnessed Fontaine getting “50 Cent’ed,” and start to piece together the mystery surrounding the previous night. From here, Taylor and Rettenmaier’s screenplay ascends into pure wacky paradise. Their construction of the conspiracy that’s afoot in the Glen is expertly crafted, digging deeper as soon as you might think that They Cloned Tyrone is starting to veer on average.
When the threesome slowly discovers that their predominantly Black neighborhood is being crowded with an influx of deliberately racist new products—including fried chicken, hair relaxer, and generic brand grape drink—it’s only the beginning. They Cloned Tyrone would still be a pretty good movie if it only mimicked that kind of crisis, plucked from a kick-ass Blaxploitation film of yore. But the film keeps peeling the layers, and the conventional becomes sensational.
They Cloned Tyrone’s core triad of perfectly cast characters elevates this already lofty material. There’s a lot to say about Foxx, who does his best work since 2012’s Django Unchained in the film. He imbues Slick Charles with all the knowledge of classic pimp characters, then doubles down on the absurdity. But Boyega and Parris are equally as admirable, with the former giving the film some necessary emotional heft to keep its comedic moments from overwhelming the gravity of its themes. It would be a spoiler to say too much, but They Cloned Tyrone proves Boyega to be one of the most versatile young actors working today. And then there’s Parris, who is so damn funny that she runs away with the whole affair. Her Nancy Drew-obsessed sex worker with a heart of gold is pure perfection, the kind of character that can float a movie to a year-end best-of list all on her own.
It feels unfortunately miraculous to find such three-dimensional characters in a Netflix original, but They Cloned Tyrone is a surprise through and through. There isn’t a single outlier or deadweight in the cast. And though the movie is occasionally hindered by the multitude of ideas it’s trying to juggle, the sum of its referential parts ultimately proves greater than any narrative snag. Even when its story slows, the film’s finely tuned sound mixing—Taylor got his start in the sound department of several short films before crafting his feature—fills the void until the narrative picks up again shortly after.
They Cloned Tyrone is a blast to watch, as well as look at and listen to. Taylor’s direction is striking for his first full-length outing, but it’s his technical chops—heard in the film’s sound superb sound mixing and inspired camerawork—that may be most notable. With all the flair overflowing from a two-hour movie, it’s a shock that They Cloned Tyrone never takes itself too seriously. With as much as the movie has going for it, that’s a feat almost as impressive as the film itself.