NOTE: Five Star is available now on DVD.
The complexities, the danger, and the seductiveness of the gang lifestyle are often explored in Hollywood cinema, but rarely with the authenticity and emotion seen in Keith Miller's Five Star. As stories of the streets go, this one relies on relationships rather than acts of violence, more closely resembling the works of David Simon than anything you'd see in Menace II Society or New Jack City. While there is a mystery spurred on by an untimely death, the film is really a collection of well-observed interactions, and one towering, charismatic performance by James "Primo" Grant.
Using non-actors can be a gamble, but Miller struck gold with Grant, a real-life member of the Brooklyn Bloods. He exudes authenticity out of every pore, every word rings true, especially the dichotomy that comes with being a father and the leader of a gang. It's the protective, paternal instinct that drives Five Star from dramatic start to thrilling finish. Primo is what's known as a "five-star general" in the Bloods; which basically makes him the untouchable Don Corleone figure of the gang. What he says goes; his word is law; nobody would dare cross him or they'll pay the price. So when Melvin, the man who mentored him dies, supposedly by a stray bullet, Primo takes it upon himself to care for his teenage son, John (John Diaz). Against the better wishes of his mother, John becomes swept up into the life of the father he barely knew, perhaps a bit too closely. Because of his lineage, he's greeted on the street with a combination of jealousy and respect. Like in any gangster movie, those who mean the most harm come with smiles on their faces.
John's energetic bravado belies his inexperience, while Primo solemnly tries to tame the young man's spirit. He knows full well how tough this life can be, and make no mistake that this is a life. Once you're in, you're in until somebody takes you out of it permanently. He grips you instantly with a somber, intense monologue about being in prison during the birth of his son. The experience shaped him, and now as a father of four with another child on the way, Primo does what he does to provide for their future. The irony is that he also recognizes the gang life could be the reason he's not there to witness that future. Grant's presence fills the entire screen; his words are carefully calculated and powerful. He may be following Miller's screenplay but you'd never know it. This is a man who has lived this life and is bringing the full weight of that experience.
While the final scenes, in which John begins to piece together what really happened to his father, may bear too much of a resemblance to less-refined gangster films, it's built on such an honest foundation that it never feels out of place. Richly observing themes of fatherhood, respect, and power, Five Star is an understated and deeply satisfying urban drama that raises the bar for the entire genre.
Rating: 4 out of 5