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by: Michael Dequina

A mix of Showgirls, Striptease, and '70s Blaxploitation. Sounds like a surefire recipe for camp, but against all odds, Ice Cube's directorial debut The Players Club, if a bit uneven, works a lot better as a serious drama than its individual ingredients would make it appear to be.

The Players Club is the name of a seedy Southern strip bar that counts among its stable of dancers Diana Armstrong, a.k.a. "Diamond" (newcomer LisaRaye). Like Demi Moore in Striptease, college senior Diana dances to support her child and better her life (and pay her tuition). The Showgirls ingredient comes in Diana's feud with lesbian-leaning bitch queen dancer Ronnie (Chrystale Wilson), who has a lustful interest in her adversary. Like a Blaxploitation heroine, Diana is also a headstrong superwoman, determined to protect her naive, also-stripping younger cousin Ebony (Monica Calhoun) from falling prey to the job's dark side; and more than willing and able to kick whatever ass stands in her way.

Cube, who also wrote and has a small role, one-ups his film's stripping cinematic cohorts by for the most part succeeding in his intentions. The Diana-Ronnie feud, thanks in no small part to the solid performances by Wilson and LisaRaye, never comes off as ridiculous. Cube has his cake and eats it too--he even delivers the knock-down, drag-out catfight that Showgirls promised but never delivered. And unlike Striptease, most of the humor works. Earning the lion's share of laughs is Bernie Mac as the club's sleazy malapropism-prone owner Dollar Bill; Jamie Foxx also has some effective comic scenes as Blue, the club's DJ.

However, that's also where Cube runs into some trouble. The broad humor and more cartoonish characters (like Dollar Bill and his righthand man L'il Man, played by A.J. Johnson) are never seamlessly meshed with the film's largely grim, gritty tone and earnest story. Some laugh lines fall flat (one reference to co-star John Amos's former role on the TV show Good Times is too obvious and in-jokey to be funny), as does some of the dialogue in general; Cube sometimes offers hackneyed lines such as "I walked into the Players Club a girl... and came out a woman."

But overall Cube guides The Players Club with a sure hand, and he makes a true acting find with the commanding LisaRaye, whose diamond-hard charisma recalls the young Pam Grier. Diana's mantra "Make the money; don't let the money make you" is neither the most profound nor original statement, but LisaRaye is able to make you believe it--and believe in it.

RATING: *** (out of *****)


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