Here’s the concept behind Cellmates: Leroy Lowe (Tom Sizemore), a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, is sent to prison partially because of his extreme loyalty to the advancement of white supremacy. Although his initial cellmate is the like-minded Bubba (Kevin Farley), circumstances change and he instead become cellmates with Emilo (Hector Jimenez), a motor-mouth, wild-haired Mexican immigrant worker.
Now obviously that concept can go in a number of directions, but ultimately the filmmakers have to decide between taking the film in a primarily comedic direction or a dramatic one. Unfortunately for Cellmates, the filmmakers never made that decision. Many of the early scenes are very funny, so by the end of the film if you’re scratching your head wondering how it turned into a soul-changing drama you’re not alone. In fact, the movie itself is confused – does it want to be silly like in the scenes when Emilio complains about his bushy hair not being “American” enough, witty like how Lowe gradually ends up helping those he hates, or is this a semi-serious story of a man’s transformation from racist to racism fighter? Well, it’s all three, and that’s a problem because despite the poster’s declaration that this is a “heartwarming buddy comedy” it never quite fulfills all the criteria of that description despite making a strong attempt at it.
Despite his goofy scowl on the poster, this is one of Sizemore’s better roles. He even manages to make Leroy Lowe a sympathetic character: Lowe has devoted his life to a hateful cause, only to find himself abandoned by that cause. The brilliance of setting this film in 1977 makes Lowe an even more pathetic character by holding onto his extremely racist views more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act passed. Even Warden Merville (Stacy Keach), who admits to Lowe that he has lingering racist tendencies, says, “Civil rights laws make it hard to segregate and discriminate these days.” While Sizemore does an admirable job of portraying Lowe’s changing attitudes throughout the film, it’s hard to buy a beautiful young Mexican woman (Olga Segura) falling in love with a much older racist like Lowe no matter how much surprising sympathy Sizemore gets out of the character.
At the very least Cellmates underwent a name change shortly before release (it was previously titled White Knight), and I’m curious what other changes were made to the film from script-to-screen. Cellmates might have been a stronger movie had the filmmakers kept a consistent tone or if they were able to more successfully navigate the tonal shift. I’m curious as to what screenwriters Jesse Baget and Stefania Moscato (Baget also directed) originally intended, because as enjoyable as parts of Cellmates are it seems unsure of the strength of its own story.
Rating: An amusing concept which seems unsure on how to deliver on that concept, though there are still some great laughs (6/10).