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Charm City Kings | Review

Charm City Kings | Review

Ride on Time: Soto Stunts in Summer Streets Lorded by Baltimore Bike Gangs

ANGEL MANUEL SOTO CHARM CITY KINGS reviewSometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but often real life plays out as formula or fate. Such is the case with Charm City Kings, the sophomore film from Angel Manuel Soto, based on the 2013 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys. Boasting a significant ensemble cast, which features rapper Meek Mill, Barry Jenkins credited on story, and Sherman Payne (“Shameless”) adapting the screenplay, expectations are significantly raised.

Despite some commendable character work and a couple of stand-out performances, however, much of Soto’s film oscillates between routine and formula before it segues into violent tragedy, the transition of which doesn’t always seem rightly calibrated. On another note, this is hardly the hopeless miserabilism one might expect from a Baltimore set narrative focused entirely on Black youth, and suggests the necessity of community, including empathetic law enforcement, to foster and engage interests, progress and success of its citizens.

Fourteen-year-old Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) spends his summer with his two best friends Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis), disobeying his mom (Teyonah Parris) by leaving the house while she’s at work instead of watching his young sister (Milan Ray) so he can roam the city streets pursuing his dirt biking dreams. Just as new girl Nicki (Chandler DuPont) arrives in town and takes a liking to him, Mouse braves approaching the Midnight Clique, the infamous group of dirt-bike riders whose presence is notorious in the city. The Clique is run by Blax (Meek Mill), an ex-con who works as a mechanic and now oversees the group from a distance. Impressed by Mouse’s loyalty to his friends, Blax offers him the opportunity to work in his shop for free by refurbishing a bike. At the end of the summer, he’ll be able to take away the bike as his own. But things get complicated before the season’s end, and Mouse begins to feel the peer pressure which has already begun to influence his friends by making money fast working as a runner for the Clique.

Slightly reminiscent of something like BMX Bandits (1983) with the organized crime initiation of youth in Goodfellas (1990), and the communal landscape of a Boyz in the Hood (1991), we’ve seen everything on display in Charm City Kings, which doesn’t rise to the great heights suggested by these comparisons.

Still, in between the predictable fate in store for Mouse, the de rigueur of the bike riding scene generates some heat, especially with a well-staged chase sequence, with DP Katelin Arizmendi (Swallow, 2019) capturing the frenetic energy of spinning wheels on asphalt. Up-and-comer Jahi Di’Allo Winston, who has already amassed a commendable filmography, working alongside Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary (2018) while being featured in The Dead Don’t Die (2019) and Queen & Slim (2019), impresses as a young adolescent already learning to subvert his sensitive interests to pursue a fast profit. Both he and Teyonah Parris (Chi-raq; If Beale Street Could Talk) nail their accents, with mother and son sharing a fiery exchange which quickens the film’s pulse.

William Catlett as Detective Rivers, Mouse’s mentor, is pure cliché, a character necessitation more development, while Meek Mill, though not distracting, is lacking in the established milieu. Blax, described as Baltimore’s Michael Jordan, should have been fashioned with a more The Fallen Idol (1948) type of energy, especially considering a major secret revealed in the third act. Some of the script’s more novel details, such as how the Midnight Clique utilizes a dating app to correspond on their illegal exchanges, could have also been utilized more effectively. Overall a decent, albeit squarely administered narrative, Charm City Kings may not be as interesting as its credits would suggest but conveys a promising voice in Soto.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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