There’s something amiss in The Glen, the neighborhood where Netflix’s new film “They Cloned Tyrone” is set. The film opens with a familiar routine lived by drug dealer Fontaine (John Boyega): working out in the yard with friends egging him on, defending his turf against rival sellers, getting a 40-ounce and scratch-offs from the liquor store, then back home to wait for his earnings for the day to be delivered in a bent-up pizza box. But as he goes through the motions of his dead-end lifestyle, the viewer becomes aware of the pervasive feeling that something isn’t quite right.
Those suspicions are confirmed when Fontaine stumbles upon an underground lab buried beneath a local trap house, where a white man with a strange afro is mixing chemicals near a dead body on a slab that looks exactly like him.
“They Cloned Tyrone” is a science fiction picture, but before that, it’s an unsettling, foreboding horror piece. But before that, it’s an uproarious comedy whose entertainment value is off the charts. Writer/director Juel Taylor, an in-demand screenwriter who worked on “Creed II,” “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” and “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” has made an audacious film that culls together a variety of influences to craft something unique and memorable. In interviews, he’s said the inspiration for the script came from an impulse to make a Scooby Doo movie. But not in the sense of literally adapting the Hanna-Barbera cartoon — instead, to tell a sprawling, spooky mystery with a group of non-professional sleuths.
For “Tyrone,” he settled on a sex worker, a pimp, and a drug dealer. Fontaine teams up with Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), a fast-talking purveyor of flesh in his debt, and Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), his best girl, who keeps trying to leave for Memphis and grew up on Nancy Drew books. As a trio, they set out to solve the mystery of how Fontaine is still walking around, unpunctured after Slick Charles and Yo-Yo saw him murdered in a drive-by shooting.
This impossible situation leads them to a massive conspiracy impacting every element of The Glen’s Black community. People are being kidnapped and cloned, but food, hair care products, church sermons, and local music are also being tampered with on a grand level. This is evident in hilarious commercials that call to mind Robert Townsend’s classic film “Hollywood Shuffle” and feature note-perfect parody songs oozing with subliminal messaging. Erykah Badu covered her song “Tyrone” for the film, mirroring the tone and tenor of the original recording so that the new sci-fi lyrics only feel out of place if you’re tuned into them.
Outside of the hilarious work Foxx and Parris do as a comedy duo, the film’s chief value is in the texture and detail of the worldbuilding. Taylor does a powerful job shifting in tone from the humor to the foreboding to the paranoiac nature of its sci-fi elements. But it falters in the third act as the true nature of the conspiracy is revealed, as its seemingly deeper themes give way to ideas that feel thimbleful at best.
In the six years since Jordan Peele birthed “Get Out,” there has been no shortage of pictures looking to marry social commentary to horror and comedy. But every subsequent film has faltered in predictably disappointing ways. Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” had the right politics but is otherwise too absurd and silly to really engage with. Plenty of episodes from Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” television series match Peele’s gift for splitting the distance between comedy and surreality, but so many others disappear up the creator’s ass with pretension. The less said about movies like the Janelle Monae vehicle “Antebellum,” the better.
“Tyrone” appears to be saying something very broad and belabored about the plight of the Black community. It, unintentionally or not, paints a picture of a monolithic culture warped by outside influences. But some of the observations it makes come from a place of empathy. Boyega’s central performance as Fontaine portrays someone born into unfortunate circumstances and resigned to their lot in life until they are shown the bigger picture and want to fight to take back their community.
That the climax feels too false a victory speaks to the narrative difficulty of tackling thorny real-world problems without resorting to easy, unearned solutions. Luckily, “Tyrone” proves too funny and visually engrossing to be felled by its thematic shortcomings. It’s been a while since a movie was this funny and genuinely disturbing. The way that it uses music, the fact that it allows Foxx to take a break from being a serious leading man, and the pleasure of watching a new cinematic voice come onto the stage all make this one worth championing, despite its faults.
It’s a bit of a shame that the first Netflix original in ages not to feel like it was made by an algorithm got dumped onto the platform the same weekend as the “Barbie”/”Oppenheimer” theatrical juggernaut. Still, hopefully, word of mouth will keep it visible on the platform before it’s overshadowed by thumbnails for dumber, less-special titles.
“They Cloned Tyrone” is now available to stream on Netflix.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, “They Cloned Tyrone” being reviewed here wouldn’t exist.