Much like 'Training Day,' 'LUV' begins with two men in uniform on a journey investigating the line between criminal activity and personal responsibility. In 'LUV,' however, the uniform is not that of a police officer, but a clean business suit worn in contrast to the street clothes of Baltimore's thugs. Also: one of the men is actually still a boy, an impressionable pre-adolescent who lives with his grandmother while his mother is “away.” Sharing the breakfast table is Uncle Victor (Common), recently returned from prison and looking to make a change to his life.
Uncle Victor lives by an honest code. He kept his mouth shut and did time but there are still ghosts from his past that want to see him dead. Despite this threat he is willing to let his nephew ride along on a day of epic hustling, from tourist-friendly green markets to gang banger's stoops to the waiting rooms of banks. Victor is compelled to educate 11-year-old Woody when he realizes that the kid is willing to lie to his family. (The child boasts that he can be frequently seen “hollerin' at the shorties” but when a cute girl from class presents herself outside the school he clams up.) However, before the day can begin, Woody has to get out of his school uniform and into some properly tailor-fit duds.
It doesn't take long before 'LUV' slides into easy “one last score before we go legit” mode, but the specificity of situation keeps it interesting. Uncle Victor has plans to develop an old-school juke joint/crab shack on Baltimore's developing harbor, and he's got the business plans and lending proposals to make it happen. While 'LUV' reminds us how difficult it is for a man from the wrong side of society's tracks to elevate to the business elite, the film takes great care to show that it isn't impossible. This might be the first movie I've ever seen where bank officers on the other side of the desk weren't depicted as cold monsters biting the heads off children. There is a lien on his mother's house, though, so some quick cash is needed. This means a visit to some unsavory characters.
The heart of the film is in the repartee between Woody (Michael Rainy Jr.) and Common. Common has a commanding presence, demanding your respect and earning your sympathies. Before even knowing what horrible things he did in his past you know you are going to forgive him, so when the final deal becomes a set-up you may find yourself genuinely caring about the outcome. He may not win “Guardian of the Year,” (I mean, he does bring a kid along on a drug exchange).
'LUV's' problems come in the third act, when young Woody's “growing up” takes on supersonic speed. It's a little hard to wrap your head around this much maturation happening in the span of one day (unless this is a grittier version of Robin Williams in 'Jack') but if interpreted as “a fable” you may be able to shrug it off. That's unlikely, though. There's really no way to watch the final scenes of 'LUV' without rolling your eyes or shouting at the screen. The kid ain't gonna drive all the way to North Carolina without somebody seeing him and calling 911. Sorry.
For a low budget production that emerged from festivals, you can do a lot worse than 'LUV.' Furthermore, the film serves as one big plea for someone to cast Common in a juicy role where he can show off his chops. He's got screen charisma to spare and, fans of 'Hell on Wheels' aside, I'm not sure enough people have been exposed to it.
'LUV' hits theaters on Friday, January 18.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.