J.D. Dillard’s Sleight is an anomaly for many reasons – least of which involves a body-hacking Iron Boy. How about perennial goofball Dulé Hill passing for a drug kingpin (which he does)? Or Jacob Latimore’s ability to wield magic with a coolness that escapes most street magicians? Seriously. How many dudes have ever successfully sparked a relationship with card tricks? Somehow Dillard makes it all work in this criminal caper about territory, respect and escaping the streets, turning sideshow gags into legitimate superhero escapism. It’s like Now You See Me, but with actual stakes. No Horsemen, just desperation cornered by circumstance.
Latimore plays Bo, an orphaned dropout whose sole focus is caring for little sister Tina (Storm Reid). By day, he stuns passerbys with sleight-of-hand illusions, and by night he deals drugs for Angelo (Dulé Hill). It’s not the life Bo chose – leaving an engineering scholarship behind – but the one that’s necessary after both his parents pass away. Things are going well until a rival dealer, Maurice (Mane Andrew), encroaches on Angelo’s turf and nips his profits. This leads to stand-offs that Bo finds himself mixed into, as his gang duties become nastier than he’d like. In an effort to escape, Bo betrays Angelo by cutting a kilo with baking powder to maximize personal cashflows – not the smartest move. Angelo finds out, expresses his disappointment and says he’s now owed upwards of $40K as compensation. And that’s just the beginning of Bo’s problems…
Sleight the movie and Sleight the marketing campaign are two vastly different beasts, the latter of which fails to represent Bo’s struggles versus powers. Dillard and co-writer Alex Theurer spend a majority share scripting the complexities of survival, not pitting Bo against angry thugs who meet his souped-up arm. This is very much a human drama about when push comes to shove, and saving yourself from being a byproduct of hopelessness. As Bo tumbles deeper down Angelo’s rabbit hole, attempts at reconciliation have little to do with floating baseball bats. Understand that any Iron Man influences are handled without full reveals, where physical modifications aren’t addressed until some forty-or-so minutes have passed. It’s about a rise, a fall and THEN some magnetic justice.
Bo derives his advantages from coiled wires that run up his arm, beginning at a mini power source dug into his bicep/shoulder area. His thumb is the negative and fingers are the positive, which makes for an unparalleled levitation show. Metal rings float with no strings attached, as Dillard’s cinematic wizardry transforms Bo into a modern-day Houdini – even though the mechanism wound is clearly infected (a little antiseptic cotton swabbing does the trick). Effects are fun and flighty, but far too often Sleight implements the “well, it’s magic!” scope of logic for explanation. Whether Bo accrues an alarming amount of money on California streets or pulls off the unthinkable – despite there being very technological advances at play – major plot points hinge on our abandonment of normality. Especially during *numerous* illusion montages spliced with OMG-faced spectators.
Enhancements aside, Latimore is a charismatic performer who hits upon all the emotions Bo wrestles with. His treatment of Tina is sweet as pie, while nightly drug-peddling swagger exposes a hardened rough side (by necessity). Latimore challenges Hill’s Angelo and his tyrannical business sense, but never undersells the severity of circumstances. Who knew the funny guy from Psych could double as a ruthless gangster so well? Seychelle Gabriel finds her place as Bo’s love interest – curiously standing by her dealer/magician/man – while a few thugs (Michael Villar/Brandon Johnson) populate Angelo’s landscape with expected gunmen. Latimore plays well with all his supporting castmates, but remains the shining star of Dillard’s on-the-run science fair project. Forced card-picking interludes and all.
Illegal drug games and best-laid plans in no way represent new cinematic devices, but Sleight succeeds by sparking both with electric energy. Maybe not with the expected tenacity, but J.D. Dillard’s manipulation of magnetic currents is enough to shock familiar systems with new life. Jacob Latimore is both a scientist and experiment, but first and foremost, he’s a compassionate big brother tasked with providing. The magic here is in underground experiences and questionable decision making, all twisted like junky copper wiring that’s unraveled into something more useful.
Even if it’s not the pseudo-superhero origin you’re expecting.
Sleight's greatest trick is hiding expected action for so long, only to capture attention through more familiar dramatic trappings.