As a subgenre, the caper film has a few hallmarks that set it apart from its older cousin, the straight-up crime film.
Capers tend to be built around “characters” who display humorous, idiosyncratic behaviors that endear them to the audience. Previous examples of caper movies like “Ocean’s Eleven” “ both the new and old incarnations “ and “The Thomas Crown Affair” feature tongue-in-cheek humor and complicated-but-clean getaways. With “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino included ultra-violence as counterpoint to his quirky dialogue and characters, which made it more shocking when someone had an ear dismembered or their head exploded in the back of a moving car. Guy Ritchie came along and did the same thing, setting his oddball characters in rough-and-tumble London.
“Next Day Air” is a caper film in that more modern sense. The story, set in Philadelphia, is anchored by Leo (Donald Faison, TV’s “Scrubs”), a bumbling, pothead driver for a small-time package-delivery company. Leo’s irresponsible behavior has cost him his girlfriend, and his job is on the verge of following suit. To deal with the stress, he spends entire work days with a joint pasted to his lips, foggily circling the city in his big, brown truck.
One fateful day, Leo delivers a package to an apartment. He’s high as the ozone layer, and doesn’t realize he visited the correct floor, but the wrong apartment. The package, which contains 10 bricks of cocaine, was meant for Jesus (Cisco Reyes, “Feel the Noise”). Sent by a drug lord named Bodega (Emilio Rivera, “Street Kings”), Jesus is to sell the product or forfeit his life.
The box winds up across the hall with Brody (Mike Epps, “Soul Men”), Guch (Wood Harris, TV’s “The Wire”) and Hassie (Malik Barnhardt, “Nora’s Hair Salon II”). The trio lives together in petty crime, boosting money and property when they can, with the occasional botched larger job thrown in.
When Brody, Guch and Hassie discover what’s in the box, they’re overjoyed, believing all their problems are over. They immediately arrange to sell the cocaine to Shavoo (Omari Hardwick, “Miracle at St. Anna”), Brody’s cousin and a mid-level distributor. Unfortunately, Shavoo has problems of his own, and Bodega hasn’t given up looking for his property.
Director and rap-video vet Benny Boom manages a fair copy of a Tarantino- or Ritchie-esque caper flick, employing cutup narrative flow, the studied-but-desperate nonchalance of the criminals and their twisted worldview. On the other hand, much of the humor and personality is missing, and the characters are morbidly obsessed with feeling important. For these thugs, importance is tied to money, and to have money is worth killing and dying for, even betraying family bonds.
While the message is deliberate, its delivery creates a depressing and uninspired experience for the viewer. Philadelphia lacks the distinctive charm of Tarantino’s Los Angeles or Ritchie’s London, and the characters are equally lackluster. When things go wrong for the tragedy’s players, there’s a sense of sadness. But the feeling is impersonal, akin to hearing about a friend of a friend’s upcoming appendectomy.