Vanity projects are bad enough, but Eddie Murphy vanity projects have been the bane of moviegoers' lives for the last decade, as anyone who's sat through Boomerang or Vampire In Brooklyn will testify. Throw in fellow motormouth Martin Lawrence, who's done nothing halfway decent since Bad Boys, and you might think that a stretch in solitary was preferable to watching Life.
But this intelligent prison flick is proof that you shouldn't judge a film by its cast list. Admittedly, it's a riot of clichés, shamelessly plundered from Papillon, The Shawshank Redemption and, most of all, Cool Hand Luke, but apart from one tongue-in-cheek take-off of Spartacus, writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone aren't in the parody business. Deciding sensibly that life in chokey is fairly chuckle-free, their humour is low-key and bitter-sweet - and Murphy's traditional wise- cracking schtick fails to make it past the first half-hour.
In fact, the years pass with a powerful sense of lives wasted - and Life has no small amount of pathos. One sequence, condensing the period between 1944 and 1972 into a few minutes, juxtaposes the progress of black America with the stagnant nature of prison, where the only thing that changes is friends dying and faces growing old.
One of the film's finer touches is the fact that it is a buddy movie which doesn't let its protagonists become firm friends for almost 40 years. Plus both leads, who usually mistake talking fast for acting, are unusually restrained. And, unlike any other Murphy film you care to name, the fine supporting cast are more than just stooges.
It may be derivative, but Life has the head and heart to reconfigure a bag of hoary old clichés into something genuine, fresh and enjoyable.
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Cool Hand Luke meets The Shawshank Redemption, with jokes. Thanks to subtlety all round, it's neither too flippant nor too slushy. Hardly original, but still an accomplished feelgood drama, and Murphy's best for years.