If you’ve been waiting for a film about a superhero who’s also a drug dealer, J.D. Dillard’s Sleight links up not only these two dissimilar occupations, but adds street magician into the mix. Rapper turned actor Jacob Latimore plays Bo, a Los Angeles native in his early 20s who’s tasked with caring for his younger sister, Tina (Storm Reid), after the untimely passing of their mother. By day, Bo performs magic tricks so blatantly spectacular you’d think he’d put David Blaine out of business, but in fact, Bo only manages to collect meager tips from Sunset Strip tourists and passersby, so by night he slings drugs for local drug kingpin Angelo (Dulé Hill).
Aside from the burden of the curious metal contraption embedded in his right arm, which periodically requires tech maintenance and a bit of disinfectant, Bo has little difficulty managing his numerous identities: as a performer, a hustler, and a brother. That is, until Angelo upgrades him from part-time dealer to full-fledged member of his violent, territorial entourage. Bo’s promotion comes just as he’s starting to develop a romance with community college student Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), which means he finds the perfect balancing act of his life suddenly and catastrophically thrown out of whack.
Dillard’s basic template here is the comic-book origin story: There’s the reluctant hero, the convenient love interest (who, to be fair, is superficially given her own arc, one vaguely involving the abuses of a mother we never see), the scheming villain, and the sci-fi-worthy (and silly-as-expected) explanation of the hero’s superpower. But it also can’t be discounted that Dillard, and about 90% of his film’s cast, are black—and that Sleight is taking a traditionally white genre and diversifying it. Unfortunately, unlike Jordan Peele’s superior Get Out, Sleight never shows much interest in exploring how blackness can inform its genre’s tropes, or even the realities of its characters. The same goes for the missed-opportunity setting of Los Angeles, and the watered-down characterization of the city’s drug culture: Any sense of danger comes less from dealing, or a conspicuously absent law enforcement, than from the more generic threat of Angelo and his various heavies.
Sleight also suffers from the misjudged expectation that explaining the science behind the doohickey in Bo’s arm late enough in the film will somehow exempt earlier scenes from making sense. (It’s difficult to see how Bo’s power, as it’s eventually explained, would aid him in a number of the different tricks he performs.) The obvious plot holes and otherwise pro-forma script leave Sleight unconvincing as a drama, and Dillard’s very sparsely meted out action beats don’t add up to much of a thriller either. So the film tends to lean on its trendy, Soderberghian visuals, all washed-out yellows and camera angles slightly off-axis with the characters’ eye lines.
Dillard exudes about as much character as a stylist as he does as a writer: Sleight is derivative, by-the-numbers superhero fare dressed down with an indie aesthetic. The film smothers any sense of individuality, place, or real-world social dynamics with a dutiful, entirely amateurish parade of familiar tropes and resolutions. And it sets up a possibility for a franchise that would be better left to a more worthy property.