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Bow Wow is likeable in formulaic ‘Roll Bounce’

Overly earnest movie about ’70s roller-boogie guys doesn't quite make it
/ Source: The Associated Press

There’s more stuff going on in the ’70s roller boogie comedy-drama-romance “Roll Bounce” than there are mirrored panels on a disco ball.

Crammed with enough real-life traumas and feel-good turnarounds to fill a couple of after-school specials, the film from director Malcolm D. Lee (“The Best Man,” “Undercover Brother”) is well-intentioned but wildly uneven.

But it does have an undeniable energy during the skating sequences, which feature elaborate choreography — imagine “Breakin”’ on wheels — and a soundtrack jam-packed with period songs from which Will Smith and Diddy have stolen the hooks to make their own catchy, commercial rap ditties.

Speaking of rappers, the artist formerly known as Lil’ Bow Wow — who now goes by just Bow Wow— shows he’s a confident, natural actor as he emerges from his teens and from earlier, more youthful roles in movies like “Like Mike.” If he keeps it up, he’ll eventually have to start going by his real name, Shad Moss.

It would appear initially that “Roll Bounce” is aimed at his core audience, but as the movie goes on, it’s hard to tell. Yes, there’s an easy exuberance with which Bow Wow’s Xavier (or “X” as he’s known) pals around with his skate buddies, including his sassy, brace-faced neighbor, Tori (Jurnee Smollett), and trash-talking Junior (Brandon T. Jackson).

But X still has yet to cope with the death of his mother a year earlier, leaving him with his father (Chi McBride), who lost his engineering job but still puts on a suit and leaves the house as if he’s going to work each morning, and his younger sister. (Conflict between Dad and X over when and if it’s right to move on emotionally sets up a couple of major tearjerker scenes.)

The movie also tries to be socially and politically relevant (like this year’s “Beauty Shop,” which writer Norman Vance Jr. also scripted) as X and his young friends bitingly joke with one another about race: One is Puerto Rican, another is half-white, half-black. The fast-talking trash collectors (Mike Epps and Charlie Murphy) refer to X’s dad as an Uncle Tom and joke that he probably voted for Nixon. (Other references, from “What’s Happening!!” to Atari, presumably are intended to inspire nostalgia but feel tossed out there indiscriminately).

And the whole endeavor is set against the backdrop of the socio-economic disparity between Chicago’s South Side — where X and his friends live — and the wealthier North Side, where they’re forced to skate once their run-down local rink closes.

The shinier Sweetwater rink has smooth hardwoods, neon lights and Centipede machines. The disc jockey plays songs like Samantha Sang’s breathy ballad “Emotion” (which features backup vocals by the Bee Gees, a group X and his friends have never heard of, and neither will the teens watching this movie). And the king of the place is a pretty boy with a huge entourage and an even bigger afro named Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan).

All these story lines, along with potential love interests for Dad (Kellita Smith) and X (Meagan Good) converge at — you guessed it — the Big Skate Off, which Sweetness and his tightly clothed crew always win, and where X and his posse pose a threat.

The event is exceedingly earnest, but with an ambiguously gay vibe to it, with Sweetness dropping to his knees and ripping off his silky black button-down shirt, his smooth chest heaving with artistic and athletic passion. It’s like the male model walk-off between Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in “Zoolander,” only they’re serious.

X is undaunted, feeling inspired by this sage advice from the dude who rents out roller skates, played by Nick Cannon in a Jimi Hendrix get-up: “You don’t fall, how you gonna know what gettin’ up is like?”

It’s all formulaic, but Bow Wow is likable enough to make most of the movie tolerable. Besides, you may as well just give in, because you know there’s going to be a “Roll Bounce 2: Electric Boogaloo.”