One image I’ve never been able to shake from my memory, decades after reviewing a history of hip hop documentary, is the picture of young Tupac Shakur in ballet tights. The hardest of the hard rappers, “assassinated” according to some in the middle of his posturing, high-profile record label feud, was a coddled mama’s boy who took ballet lessons.
“Forever Rich” is a tense Dutch thriller about another hip hop tough guy whose pose runs up against harsh reality.
A streetwise (ish) kid, a mama’s boy, Rich has focused on one thing since childhood — hip hop fame. “Forever Rich” opens with a home video his doting mom (Hadewych Minis) took of him as a tween.
Adult (ish) Rich (Jonas Smulders, superb) is about to see the culmination of that dream — a sold-out show in his hometown, a Sony record deal pending, a baby boy and a baby mama in tow and a gaudy Rolex and gaudier Mercedes G-wagon among his prized possessions.
But Rich, whose “Forever Rich” tour is launching, is about to go through some things. In a long day and night, he is mugged by “1112 Street Soldiers,” allegedly teenaged fans (from his rough and poor 1112 postal code). He is videoed and ridiculed by them on social media.
The online humiliation — not taking into account there were four of them and they were armed and just Rich and his unarmed tour manager Tony (Daniël Kolf) — is swift and disastrous.
“Poser” (in Dutch, with English subtitles) is the most polite criticism.
They have his watch. They beat him up at knife point. They have his phone, and we know what idiot under-25s put on their phones, don’t we? It all starts crashing down around his ears.
And even before that is obvious, Rich instinctively reaches for revenge. He will get that damned watch back. He will punish the punks. He will video their defeat and rally social media to his cause and turn the tide. When the bored cops offer “no special treatment,” he will take matters into his own hands.
Yeah, that’ll work out. And tell me Hollywood isn’t salivating to remake this. That is one can’t-miss premise.
Over the course of that evening, Rich loses control of the narrative — his agent (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing can’t control his smothering, alcoholic mother) — gets “friends” (employees) injured and endangered in his single-minded pursuit, and blunders again and again in learning Robert Palmer’s long-sung-about life lesson, “Wise men know that revenge does not taste sweet.”
I got a laugh out of Rich thinking he’s outsmarted the muggers, tracking his phone to a hotel, jumping a guy with the stand-out shoes he noticed during his beat down. Then the guy’s girlfriend shows up and drops Rich like a sack of…tulip bulbs.
Director and co-writer Shady El-Hamus (“About That Life”) isn’t shy about showing Rich’s infantile streak and his delusions of toughness. Auto-tuned, tattooed and grilled up, what do you want to bet there’s a tutu or two in his past, too?
But Rich instinctively grasps image and perception and the stakes involved. His idiotic lashing out, lunging this way and that, has a logic to it. If he can get that watch back, maybe humiliate a mugger, he can regain control of his narrative.
Laws broken, cops crossed and possible consequences for his actions? None of that matters. He’s that focused, has that much to lose. And he knows it even if the viewer is slack-jawed at the clumsy, out-of-his-depth extremes he will lunge into.
Sinem Kavus plays his latest girlfriend, mother of his child, and gives Anna an edge that suggests she’s only willing to take so much in clinging to her sugar daddy.
Kolf’s Tony is a voice of reason who instantly caves to every furious whim Rich pursues in getting even, and getting even online, with these masked punks who have set off a bomb in the middle of his finest hour.
Mustafa Duygulu plays “Appie,” Rich’s beefy head of security, a guy who might have embellished his own legend in getting the job but who has to put up or shut up when his paycheck is mugged in a parking garage, of all places.
But this is Smulders’ show, a performance that lets us see the myopia, mania and native cunning in play (or missing) in his single-minded pursuit of getting what’s his back.
There are hiccups in the narrative, and maybe a little more could be done emotionally with all Rich sees himself losing. But it’s still a riveting tale, one that will either be tidied up and streamlined or utterly botched in translation the moment Hollywood scripts a remake.
With a story as good as this one, you know they’ll take a shot.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Jonas Smulders, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Hadewych Minis, Daniël Kolf, Mustafa Duygulu and Sinem Kavus
Credits: Directed by Shady El-Hamus, scripted by Shady El-Hamus and Jeroen Scholten van Aschat. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:31