Film Review: MFKZ

This animated action-comedy blurs the line between gritty reality and sci-fi fantasy, and between refreshing and dully repetitive.
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A desolate young dreamer named Angelino struggles to discover his life’s purpose in the aliens-in-the-hood anime actioner MFKZ. Directed by the team-up of animator Shôjirô Nashimi and comic artist Guillaume “Run” Renard, who also scripted, the film itself struggles to evince much purpose beyond representing the ugliest vision of urban decay and just wishing it all could be better.

Angelino, or Lino, voiced with an edge of sadness by Kenn Michael, wishes his life in rundown Dark Meat City could be better, but, as he explains in voiceover, he doesn’t believe he’ll ever make it out of there. Composed of an intricate inner-city palette of vibrant colors and patchwork patterns, DMC resembles the most blighted version of L.A. It’s riddled with buildings and billboards, rats and palm trees, and is undeniably gorgeous in its ugliness. Every densely detailed frame is rendered with texture and dimension courtesy of art director Shinji Kimura and the animators of Studio 4º C.

But the beauty, more or less, ends with the background art as the movie follows Lino and his pals down a violent and bloody, tripped-out rabbit hole of secrets, superpowers and alien conspiracies.

Angelino, a coal-complexioned, not-exactly-human pizza delivery guy, lives in a roach-infested apartment with his flaming-skull-headed roommate and sidekick Vinz, voiced by rapper Vince Staples. They play videogames and hang out with their jumpy cat-like pal Willy (voiced by a spirited Dino Andrade), dreaming of better tomorrows. Everything changes one afternoon when Lino, distracted by the sight of a pretty girl walking, is knocked off his scooter by a truck. From that day forward, he’s distracted by waking nightmare visions of shadowy, possibly imaginary, creatures walking among humankind disguised as regular people.

Lino’s also shadowed around town by very real, gun-toting Men in Black. Then, he and Vinz are attacked in their apartment by a masked, hyper-militarized police unit. The deadly chases and run-ins with the bloodthirsty factions stalking his every move compel Lino to lie low in the dangerous hood of Palm Hill.

There, the film loses the plot with a detour into a savage shootout between the Men in Black and some Palm Hill gangbangers, led by a Shakespeare-quoting gangsta called Shakespeare (voiced by RZA). MFKZ makes attempts at humor, but they’re pretty weak. An ice cream truck dubbed the Ice Ice Baby, rolling on BadYear tires, is about as amusing as the jokes get.

The action, directed and edited to emphasize the level of detail in the animation, takes up some of the slack. And the character design adds visual appeal, especially with a crew of luchadors who call themselves the Guardians, protectors of the universe descended from Aztec warriors. Hailing from a line centuries long, the Guardians are unsure of their exact purpose in the here and now, but they’ll keep fighting evil until their purpose finds them.

MFKZ pours on game-style fight scenes, from wrestling and martial arts to first-person shooters, but the directors tend to prize gore and bedlam over tension and suspense, which grows wearisome. The stream of chases and vicious gun battles and disembowelments bleed together. The film seems as stuck in the treacherous DMC as Lino and friends, until it arrives at Lino’s Chosen One story, probing his sudden manifestation of superhuman fight skills.

Following the path of Chosen One stories from Star Wars to The Matrix, Lino’s tale leads to the unmasking of the dark forces that mastermind all the cruelty, greed, conflict and oppression in the world. The story threatens to get more interesting, as Lino connects with the pretty girl walking, named Luna (Dascha Polanco), who might be more femme fatale than soul mate. But the film’s finale fizzles, leaving not soulful satisfaction but the bitter aftertaste of Lino and his buddies’ grisly journey through the hellscape they call home.