Review: ‘Body Cam,’ starring Mary J. Blige, Nat Wolff, David Zayas and Anika Noni Rose

May 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mary J. Blige in “Body Cam” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Body Cam”

Directed by Malik Vitthal

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Swinton, Louisiana, the horror film “Body Cam” has a racially diverse cast (African American, white, Latino and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A veteran cop goes rogue in investigating a series of mysterious and bloody murders that have been recorded on surveillance videos.

Culture Audience: “Body Cam” will appeal primarily to Mary J. Blige fans and to people who like formulaic and predictable horror movies.

Nat Wolff in “Body Cam” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Grammy-winning singer Mary J. Blige was nominated for two Oscars for the 2017 Netflix drama “Mudbound” (Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song), so it’s a shame that her next role in a live-action film turned out to be such an embarrassing dud.

After “Mudbound,” Blige had voice roles in the animated films “Sherlock Gnomes” (2018) and “Trolls World Tour” (2020), with both roles as supporting characters. In the live-action “Body Cam,” Blige is front and center as the main character— a troubled cop named Renée Lomito-Smith, who lives and works in the fictional city of Swinton, Louisiana. The movie is Blige’s first time getting top billing in a major motion picture—”Body Cam” is from the ViacomCBS-owned companies Paramount Pictures and BET Films—and it’s an unfortunate career misstep for her as an actress, due to her wooden acting in the film and the movie’s silly plot.

The only saving grace is that “Body Cam” has little chance of being seen by a large audience, so there probably won’t be permanent damage to Blige’s efforts to be taken seriously as an actress. Paramount Pictures apparently has so little faith in this movie that the studio didn’t even release a trailer for the film until the week before “Body Cam” was dumped as a direct-to-video release.

The beginning of “Body Cam” (which has almost every scene taking place at night) shows Swinton as a city in racial turmoil over police brutality. The opening scene takes place in a local diner, where a TV news report shows that a white cop from the Swinton Police Department has been acquitted in a fatal shooting of an unarmed black man. As the news report is shown on TV, a black cop named Kevin Ganning (played by Ian Casselberry) enters the diner, but he is told by the older black gentleman who serves him a cup of coffee that he’s not welcome in the diner.

After Kevin leaves the diner during this rainy night, he’s alone on patrol duty when he encounters a green Chevy van in a routine traffic stop. He looks inside the vehicle and sees something bloody in the back. He then orders the driver to step outside. A black woman in her 30s, wearing a hooded jacket, steps out with her arms raised. And then, a mysterious forces swoops Kevin up in the air.

The movie’s story then shifts to 12 hours earlier, when Blige’s Renée character is seen in a meeting with an internal affairs psychiatrist named Dr. Lee (played by Han Soto), who interrogates her about her mental health, by asking if she has insomnia or troubling thoughts. “Have you moved on from your son’s death?” he asks.

As viewers learn, Renée has been grieving over the death of her pre-teen son Christopher (played by Jibrail Nantambu in flashback scenes), who passed away from an accidental drowning in a neighbor’s swimming pool. Although her husband Gary (played by Demetrius Grosse) is grieving too—Christopher was their only child—and Gary is very supportive of Renée, her emotional turmoil has apparently affected her job performance.

Renée is under investigation because she slapped a civilian during an argument with the civilian—an incident that was captured on her body cam, but not shown in the movie. The meeting is to determine if she will be suspended or be able to continue working in the department. Ultimately, Renée (who was on administrative leave during the investigation) gets to keep her job.

When she returns to the police department, Renée is put on the night shift and welcomed warmly by her colleagues. They include Sergeant Kesper (played by David Zayas) and patrol-duty fellow police officers Kevin Ganning, Darlo Penda (played by David Warshofsky), Gabe Roberts (played by Philip Fornah) and Mariah Birke (played by Naima Ramos-Chapman). Renée also finds out that she’s been paired with a rookie cop named Danny Holledge (played by Nat Wolff), who previously worked with Ganning.

The police staff meetings led by Sergeant Kesper show that there is a culture of strong solidarity that’s expected of the cops. Kesper expresses that the recent acquittal of their fellow cop colleague was the right decision. He also warns his subordinates that the controversial shootings have caused a lot of anger toward cops, so extra care must be taken in dealing with the public.

Meanwhile, Renée’s colleagues tease her about having to be stuck with a rookie. She isn’t thrilled about having to train a newcomer, but she brushes off the good-natured ribbing and does her best to work with Danny, who is a “by the book” type of of cop and eager to impress his more experienced co-workers.

It isn’t long for Renée and Danny to find out that they have very different styles of working. Renée is more of the “take charge” type, while Danny is more of a passive observer who follows the lead of someone who has authority over him. While out on patrol, they encounter a black boy who’s about 5 years old sitting alone in the middle of the street. As Renée approaches the boy with concern, his mother bursts out of a nearby house and shouts at Renée not to touch her son.

A small group of angry neighbors suddenly appear, and they’re hostile to Renée and Danny. Because they are cops, they’re clearly not wanted in the neighborhood. Renée quickly diffuses the situation by reassuring the crowd that she was only trying to help the boy because he wasn’t being supervised by an adult. As they leave the area, Danny tells Renée that he respects how she handled the incident.

Renée and Danny then arrive at an apparent crime scene: Officer Ganning’s squad car has been apparently abandoned, with the cop nowhere in sight. The green Chevy van shown earlier is near the squad car and also appears to be abandoned. The van has no license plates. And soon, Renée and Danny find a lot of blood near the car and bloody teeth on the hood of the car.

When Renée looks at the surveillance footage from the dashboard camera, and she sees how Officer Ganning encountered the mystery woman and then appeared to be abducted and lifted up in the sky by a mysterious and shadowy force. He was then brutally thrown on the ground. While the injured and bloodied cop is crawling on the ground, he is scooped up again and lets out a horrified scream.

While she’s still absorbing what she just saw, Renée tells the investigating cop Detective Susan Hayes (played by Laura Grice) that Office Ganning was probably murdered. But when Detective Hayes looks at the surveillance video, she tells Renée that the video was apparently erased because the footage doesn’t exist.

Upon further investigation, it’s confirmed that Office Ganning was murdered, when his mangled body is found impaled like a scarecrow on a steel link fence. In shock, Renée and Danny commiserate with each other at a local diner, where she opens up to him about the incident that put her on a leave of absence. She admits that she “lost it” with the civilian because he called her a “black bitch.”

She also tells Danny about her son Christopher and how he died. “I can’t let another person close to me die without doing something,” Renée tells Danny. And so, the rest of the movie is about Renée’s attempt to solve the mystery of her colleague’s murder and other similar murders that happen throughout the story.

Through surveillance footage, Renée was able to find out that the mystery woman in the van is a registered nurse named Taneesha Branz (played by Anika Noni Rose), who used to work at Winton Hospital but has mysteriously disappeared. And by doing an Internet search, Renée finds out that Taneesha had a 14-year-old son named DeMarco (played by Mason Mackie) who died of foul play, since he was found shot in an abandoned industrial area.

Unfortunately, this shoddily written screenplay from Nicholas McCarthy and Richmond Riedel has Renée breaking all kinds of laws to get to the bottom of the mystery herself. She steals evidence from crime scenes, and she breaks into Taneesha’s abandoned home multiple times. Danny uncomfortably witnesses some of these law violations (he’s with Renée the first time that she breaks into Taneesha’s empty house), and he voices his objections, but Renée essentially ignores him and does what she wants anyway as she tries to solve the case all on her own.

Part of her “going rogue” also includes a laughable scene where she convinces a morgue attendant to leave her alone in a roomful of bodies so that she can find the thumbprint that she needs to unlock a cell phone that she stole. This takes place after the “killer on the loose” strikes again by massacring several people in a rampage at a convenience store.

Danny and Renée, who are apparently the only cops in Swinton who get called to murder scenes, are the first police officers to arrive after this mass murder spree. And, of course, Renée goes straight to the store’s security video to see what happened, since the ongoing theme in the movie is that Renée (and the viewers) are putting the pieces of the puzzle together through video surveillance footage.

The lackluster direction of Malik Vitthal and the moronic screenplay are mainly to blame for this dreary and unimaginative movie. The pacing in “Body Cam” is sometimes too slow for a story that’s supposed to be a suspenseful thriller/horror movie. The expected bloody gore (which isn’t very creative) takes place in numerous scenes, but the movie lacks character development in its paint-by-numbers storytelling that’s derivative of so many below-average movies in the horror genre.

And some viewers might be very annoyed that because almost everything in the movie happens at night, the entire color palette of the film is very dark and often very murky, even in the interior scenes. “Body Cam” cinematographer Pedro Luque lights a lot of scenes as if almost every location in Swinton is grimy and polluted. The movie was actually filmed in the vibrant city of New Orleans, but you wouldn’t know it from how the cinematography makes this movie’s city look like a depressing urban wasteland.

Blige often delivers her lines in a monotone voice and stiff demeanor that might be her attempt to portray Renée as someone who is numb with grief, but it comes across as simply dull and dreadful acting. The other actors in the film do an adequate job with their underwritten characters that have very forgettable dialogue. And in the case of Rose, who plays a mostly mute Taneesha, there’s hardly any dialogue to be said. Blige is the one who’s supposed to carry the film as the main character, and it appears that she’s not quite ready for this type of heavy lifting. Blige’s original song “Can’t Be Life” is tacked on to the film’s end credits, but even that tune is forgettable and certainly won’t be nominated for any awards.

The ending of “Body Cam” is very easy to predict, even down to the climactic scene that takes place in a dark and abandoned building where no self-respecting cop would go without backup. Unlike the surveillance video in the movie, “Body Cam” can’t be deleted or erased from Blige’s list of acting credits, but she probably wants to forget that she made this substandard film.

Paramount Pictures released “Body Cam” on digital on May 19, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is June 2, 2020.