PLOT: Four interconnected tales follow a teenager in love (Jack Champion), two female rappers trying to make it (Normani and Dominique Thorne), a world-weary debt mob enforcer (Pedro Pascal ) and a basketball legend (Jay Ellis) looking for vengeance in 1987 Oakland.
REVIEW: Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) make a triumphant return to Sundance with one of the festival’s most energetic offerings in years. Mixing a Tarantino-style crime tale with high-octane action, Boden and Fleck use the bag of tricks they earned working for the MCU (Captain Marvel) to deliver an unexpected smash. Freaky Tales is the kind of movie Sundance would have shown in its nineties heyday, with it likely the only film playing this year that ends in a kung-fu-heavy bloodbath. I loved every second of it.
Freaky Tales mostly takes place over a single night in Oakland; it uses a few things that were happening in the area back then, such as the Golden State Warriors facing off with the Lakers and the rise of rapper Too Short as a jumping-off point. Yet, the film goes way, way other there pretty quickly, with the stylized chapters escalating in style until an ending that plays like Kill Bill mixed with Scanners.
The film mainly revolves around each of the leads having violent encounters with Oakland Skinheads. Each chapter seems influenced by a different classic from the era the movie is set in. The first chapter plays like a mix of The Karate Kid and The Warriors. In it, a good-natured teen (Jack Champion) with a monster crush on a girl (Ji-Young Yoo) into the punk scene becomes a hero as he joins them in an ultra-violent brawl with Neo-Nazis. These skinheads are working for a more dangerous crew headed by a crooked cop (Ben Mendelsohn) who also has the lead of our third story, Pedro Pascal’s Clint, under his thumb. Before getting to the more violent second half of the film, Freaky Tales detours into Krush Groove territory, following two female battle rappers as they try to make it in the club scene. It’s a good-natured little aside before the movie dives right into a violent, carnage-filled second half, with Pascal’s storyline similar to James Caan’s in Thief, while the finale has heavy shades of The Last Dragon thrown in.
While the nature of the film makes it inevitably uneven, for the most part, Fleck and Boden keep the pace propulsive. Even the slower second story about battle rap is entertaining, with singer Normani and Ironheart’s Riri WIlliams herself, Dominique Thorne, delivering winning performances.
However, the first, third and fourth stories are the ones that get your adrenaline pumping, with the first story shot in a way that makes it feel like you’re watching a VHS copy of a coming-of-age 80s classic. Jack Champion, who broke out in Avatar: The Way of Water, is a thoroughly likeable lead, with his chemistry with the pretty Ji-Young Yoo on point, as the two debate the ending of The Lost Boys and “Blue Velvet” people before their climactic brawl.
One of the movie’s most significant selling points will undoubtedly be Pedro Pascal, cast perfectly as the world-weary enforcer, eager to leave the business behind to raise a family. Boasting an extended cameo by an A-lister whose Oakland roots are heavily referenced in the film, this segment plays like a classic crime tale, with it and the fourth story really two halves of a longer whole. Of everyone, Pascal has the most significant role as a tragedy sends him into a suicidal confrontation with Mendelsohn’s ultra-evil Nazi mastermind, only for the film to take a wild turn in the last segment. In it, Jay Ellis from Top Gun: Maverick emerges as a full-blown action star, playing a real-life basketball player named Sleepy Floyd who, in this film’s demented take on reality, also runs a quasi-cult where he teaches teens to harness their psychic power to fight evil. Does it sound a little random? It is, but Boden and Fleck do such a good job elevating the violence and frenetic pace that it really works when Freaky Tales takes a detour into full-blown kung-fu-tinged Scanners territory.
Indeed, Freaky Tales works very well as a genre movie and could be a hit for whatever distributor picks it up. Pascal’s rising fame and the fact that it boasts a ton of well-designed action (and a terrific soundtrack that includes everything from Metallica to Public Image Limited) makes it seem natural for the big screen. I loved every second of it.