'Air' steals its laughs amid frenetic action

Everyone in Philadelphia is a thief -- even the deliverymen.

That's pretty much the gist of "Next Day Air," a movie I'm sure a lot of my buddies and associates from the City of Brotherly Love will not dig all that much.

A grungy, dark-humored bit of pulp, "Air" is basically an hour-and-a-half of suspicious stares and lunkheaded moves -- something I'm sure would happen if an overnighted package filled with 10 bricks of cocaine ended up missing and a lot of people were angling to get their hands on it.

In this situation, we only have courier and weed-smoking screwup Leo (co-producer Donald Faison) to blame. During a blunted haze, he delivers the aforementioned package to the apartment of Guch (Wood Harris) and Brody (Mike Epps), two petty thieves who aren't even good at properly robbing a bank. They immediately seize on this opportunity and arrange to sell it to Brody's drug-dealer cousin (Omari Hardwick) and his anonymous bodyguard (Darius McCrary, a tad bulkier since his days as Eddie Winslow on "Family Matters").

Unfortunately, the package was supposed to go to the bickering Latino couple (Cisco Reyes and Spanish TV personality Yasmin Deliz) next door. They now have to track down the package before the ruthless kingpin (Emilio Rivera) who sent it to them comes to Philly and looks for it himself.

With its obvious urban (read: government cheese-owning) appeal, you've probably guessed that "Air" is the work of a music-video director looking to make a splash on the big screen. In this case, the director is Philadelphia native Benny Boom, who has helmed videos for 50 Cent (whose "I Get Money" song plays during the end credits), T-Pain, Nas, Keyshia Cole and a bunch of other "106 & Park" regulars.

For his first film, Boom doesn't pull a Hype Williams and go completely "Belly" with overstylizing the film, although he does include a fluid montage halfway through that may have people wondering when did they step into an R. Kelly video. He does make some rookie mistakes. (Do we really need to hear a character, who mentions the one rule he lives by in one scene, mentally remind himself of that rule when a sticky situation arises later in the movie?) But he does know how to pace a quasi-farcical, ensemble film quite competently, as the story (scripted by fellow Philly boy Blair "Butta" Cobbs) does its best to keep all these characters apart until the big, gun-crazy standoff/showdown climax at the end.

"Air" does feel like a quick-fire, Tarantino-style knockoff (people still make those!?), with its offbeat characters and wisecracking moments off-setting the uncertain, potentially violent tension that looms over this thing. If anything, "Air" feels more like the ghetto version of "2 Days in the Valley," that slicked-out Tarantino knockoff from 1996 that had an all-star cast (James Spader, Jeff Daniels and a very young Charlize Theron, among them) doing criminal activities in Los Angeles.

Most of the cast manage to balance being both funny and menacing with their characters (especially Epps, who's not just playing the usual dang fool, but a scary dang fool). Sadly, don't expect Mos Def, doing his usual scene-stealing shtick in the two scenes he's in as a larcenous deliveryman, to figure prominently in the story.

"Next Day Air" may be barely a movie, as it captures a dangerous moment in time when several people way over their heads try to get their Tony Montana on (it's practically fitting that the movie ends with a character using a line from "Scarface") and zips right out of frame when it's done. Then again, what it barely is works just OK in my opinion.

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