DJay (Terrence Howard, "The Best Man") is a Memphis pimp looking for a better life. Financed by his stable of hookers (including Taryn Manning, Paula Jai Parker, and Taraji Henson), DJay reignites an early love for music, and flirts with a career in "crunk" rap music. Calling on an old friend (Anthony Anderson) for help, DJay starts to lay down some tracks, and soon the singular power of his voice becomes a viable, if elusive, ticket out of his bleak surroundings.
One cannot write about "Hustle & Flow" (IMDb listing) without praising the lead performance from Terrence Howard. As DJay, the conflicted, oily pimp looking to break free from the game and satisfy his long held dreams, Howard delivers a career-best performance. On paper, the character arc for DJay doesn't veer far from the familiar, including instances of DJay seducing his stable of hookers and vicious displays of his red-hot temper. However, Howard makes DJay a human being; an icy one, but there's a fire behind his glare that reveals more character motivation than anything in the speech-heavy screenplay. Howard is ferocious, funny, and most significantly, capable of expressing DJay's inner thought process. He brings believability to the way the character does business, most importantly the "flow" of the title. Building off his grand work in "Crash," Howard has finally come into his own, with "Hustle" capturing his Oscar-worthy concentration brilliantly.
Too bad the rest of the film isn't up for the same challenge. Patterned off pimp cinema of the 1970s (complete with static yellow opening titles), along with a little taste of the struggling-for-rap-stardom genre found in "8 Mile," "Hustle" is a familiar cocktail that assumes freshness with its pioneering take on the "crunk" genre of hip-hop. Written and directed by Craig Brewster, "Hustle" is a very entertaining picture for people who like their protagonists morally questionable and their dialog as thick and insufferable as the Memphis summer Brewster impeccably recreates. The picture is a memorable creation if only for its setting and texture, in which Howard helps Brewster immensely by selling his surroundings with laid-back grace. I'm also deeply impressed by the performance the filmmaker dragged out of Anthony Anderson. In a rare non-screaming role, Anderson is likeable and dramatic in ways he's never registered on film before. Brewster deserves a standing ovation for that little trick alone.
While "Hustle" trucks along proficiently enough, even creating some future crunk hits through DJay's flow along the way (with song titles like "Whoop That Trick"), the film's goodwill is obliterated in the final 30 minutes. If the film wasn't teetering enough on the edge of formula for the first two acts, it sinks like a stone into absurdity when tempers flare and guns are drawn for the finale. Brewster had a curious way of mounting a big audience-pleasing urban film experience with "Hustle," but his instincts turn to dust with this closer, which props up DJay as some type of hero when the film wisely never bothered to take sides before. Brewster also sees fit to hand "Hustle" a happy ending, which is preposterous, and taints the entire experience. Even DJay wouldn't swallow that much good fortune coming to him.
Filmfodder Grade: C+