Next Day Air begins busy. Cutting between action in Calexico and Philadelphia, it quickly sets in motion its several about-to-collide storylines, all involving drugs and guns and some measure of confusion. Chief among the players is Leo (Donald Faison), perennially distracted driver for the titular delivery company. He first appears spewing obscenities in an effort to disavow any knowledge of the plot that’s about to unfold: “I got nothing to do with this shit,” he insists, his face bloodied and brown uniform disheveled. “What the fuck am I doing here?”
How he gets “here” is more or less explained when the film cuts back to “yesterday,” when a couple of bumbling bank robbers fall all over themselves and come away with only the surveillance videotapes of their adventure (this the result of a miscommunication something that happens a lot in Next Day Air). Brody (Mike Epps) and Guch (Wood Harris), along with their scary roommate Hassie (Malik Barnhardt), make it back to their apartment despite a pile-on of errors and loss of their getaway car. Once home and ostensibly safe (they have the tapes, after all), they argue and smoke and play shooter videogames, in not very concerted efforts to get over their disappointment.
They’re about to get a visit from Leo, with a package that’s supposed to go to the apartment across the hall. Imagine their delight when they open the box and out tumble 10 bright blue bricks of cocaine. No matter that this delivery is intended for Jesus (Cisco Reyes), in debt to Bodega Diablo (Emilio Rivera) — whose brutal kingpin status is marked by his much-chomped cigar, not to mention his brief attendance at a cockfight. Brody and Guch assume they’ve been gifted with a sure route to a new Escalade, which they proceed to pursue with as much energy as they can muster.
This means calling a cousin, Shavoo (Omari Hardwick), who wears sunglasses and regularly ponders retirement from the illegal drugs trade. “Always remember what you doing it for,” he tells his big-necked cohort (Darius McCrary). If it ain’t worth dying for, you don’t want to be in it.” He wants out, he insists, because “Junk’s a dead end.” He can’t know how right he is.
But you can. For all its speed and commotion, Next Day Air is pretty much a movie you’ve seen before. You know how it begins and ends, and you know what’s going to happen in between. Part Guy Ritchie-ish gangster flick and part violently inclined stoner comedy (cf. Friday or Pineapple Express), it grants veteran music video director Benny Boom his first chance at studio-financed film directing. It’s a hard transition, as his mentor Hype Williams can attest. Though Boom has worked with big names like Nelly, Keyshia Cole, and 50, the jump from hiphop videos to features; the transition is notoriously easier for patently white guys like David Fincher, Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze (who did work Biggie and the Beasties Boys, respectable resume lines for sure). That’s not to say Boom’s stylized efforts are in vain — the pedestrian plotting is at least partly juiced by the raucous stylizing and the brief appearance of Mos Def.
As Eric, Leo’s in-the-know coworker, Mos Def lends the entire business a particular kind of class. No matter the surrounding business, he can be counted on to seem self-aware. In this case, he doesn’t even step into the main trajectory, but rather observes from a safe-seeming outside, providing the promotional trailer with something like star power, while he’s being held up on his NDA truck by Jesus and his neck-rolling, tube-top-wearing stereotype of a girlfriend Chita (Yasmin Deliz). In one of the movie’s many misidentifications, this duo — desperate to recover the coke before Bodega makes his way east — thinks Eric is Leo, whom they saw in their hallway with empty handtruck the afternoon their package was supposed to be delivered. Roughed up by Chita, Eric responds to Jesus’ sudden realization, “It’s not him,” with the film’s cleverest line: “It’s not me.”
It might be argued that no one here is quite “me.” All caricatures, all too broad for life, they make their way from one potential showdown to another until all ate gathered in a small room with guns cocked. At this point it doesn’t help Leo that his mom (Debbie Allen) runs the NDA office (her one scene has her behind a desk looking aptly tired) or that he’s a fast talker with a gift for forgetting where he’s at. That gift seems especially useful right about then. Whenever then is.