Ben Cross (D.L. Hughley) is a former teacher with a dark past and some anger issues. He still sleeps with his ex-wife, but she’d rather be elsewhere. When Ben gets a call from an old colleague who asks him to teach at a juvenile prison facility, Ben figures it’s a good stepping stone to get back into teaching.
After meeting his unruly class, Ben realizes that a good way to get the kids focused is for them to express themselves through rap and poetry. One student named Gabriel (Jose Pablo Cantillo), with who… Ben connects, is good enough to go toe-to-toe with Eminem in 8 Mile.
Pretty soon, Ben is enrolling Gabriel in the local Poetry Slam competition. Politics then threaten to shut down the school, and Ben and Gabriel’s hopes of winning the Poetry Slam. In the meantime, villainous inmate Sammy One (Vicellous Reon Shannon) doesn’t like Gabriel’s newfound talent and does his best to make life a living hell for everyone involved.
If this sounds like a direct-to-video version of Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, or 187 – then you’re correct. If this sounds like a bad direct-to-video movie – then you’re wrong. Surprisingly, Shackles is better than most of the aforementioned films. While the subject matter may be similar, the performances and realism make this one of the better films in the “teacher in tough school” genre.
Perhaps the biggest reason Shackles succeeds is because of its leads. D.L. Hughley’s foray into drama results in a powerhouse performance of conviction and desperation. A comedian, Hughley appeared in such films as Kings of Comedy and Soul Plane, as well as his own sitcom. With more roles like this, Hughley could easily pull off a crossover career on par with Jamie Foxx or Jim Carrey.
As Gabriel, Jose Pablo Cantillo fills the screen with intensity, especially when delivering one of his venomous poems about growing up in a tough environment that resulted in dealing drugs. Cantillo is instantly likeable, even when his character is a mixture of love and hate. I look forward to seeing what Cantillo will make of his career.
Along with the acting, Shackles boasts a smart script, not usually a staple of direct-to-video genre films. The script is very poetic, even during quiet scenes not involving the Poetry Slams. It grapples with the question of whether or not juveniles are worth saving, or just on their way towards bigger and badder crimes. The script is also accompanied by multiple screens that reminded me of the television show 24. When not being “Brady Bunch” cheesy, split screens can do an excellent job telling two stories at once, especially when showing the similarities that Ben and Gabriel share. Shackles uses this technique wisely.
Kudos to the filmmakers for making a direct-to-video genre film that asks questions and makes viewers think, rather than just piling on cheap thrills and bad acting. While Shackles does have its flaws, like being shot in L.A. when it’s supposed to take place in New York and a finale that is both overdone and unrealistic – it does manage to say something important that stays with the viewer.
Shackles is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Shot in high-definition, Shackles looks flawless. This is one of the best pictures I’ve ever seen. Colors are rich, the lighting is natural and realistic, leading to an intimate viewing experience. Really, there are no problems at all with the picture. Real life seldom looks this good.
While Shackles is primarily dialogue driven, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track delivers another realistic aspect to the viewing experience. Ambience from the prison is nicely channeled to the surround speakers, and background music, while sometimes cheesy, sounds crisp and clear. Transitional sound effects, such as prison doors closing, almost startle the viewer with their clarity and loudness. Some of the dialogue is difficult to hear due to the actors speaking lowly. While the audio track can’t compare to the quality of the picture, it is through no fault of its own.
- Director Commentary – director Charles Winkler sings praises of shooting on high-definition, as well he should — Shackles looks great. He also adds that prison life is largely poetic which allowed them to maintain a poetic feel throughout the film. Winkler also sings the praises of D.L. Hughley, who made a seamless transition from comedy to drama.
- Deleted Scenes With or Without Commentary – include 11 scenes cut from the film for length and continuity reasons.
- Daniel Louis Rivas (Pretty) Audition Footage
- Jose Pablo Cantillo (Gabriel) Audition Footage
- Previews – contains trailers for several direct-to-video genre films: 7 Seconds, Doing Hard Time, Lockdown, and Motives.
Shackles will surprise you. You don’t expect direct-to-video genre films to be this good. You also don’t expect them to look and sound this good either. Thank God for high-definition. Shackles has a nice set of extras, but the main attraction here is the “diamond in the rough” status this film achieves. D.L. Hughley and Jose Pablo Cantillo both shine equally, giving Shackles star power that it really shouldn’t have. If you’re looking for something familiar with a new twist, get fitted for Shackles.
Special Features List
- Director Commentary
- Deleted Scenes
- Audition Footage