Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A pimp, a drug dealer, and a prostitute walk into a trap house and discover a clandestine government cloning facility. That’s the elevator pitch for They Cloned Tyrone, Netflix’s new sci-fi comedy-thriller starring John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, and Teyonah Parris.
Directed by Juel Taylor, known for his work as a writer on Creed II and Space Jam: A New Legacy, They Cloned Tyrone is a Blaxploitation-y genre mashup that lands squarely between the surreal doppelgänger-laden menace of Jordan Peele’s Us and the incisive political satire of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. The result is one of the funniest, most thrilling, and most surprising movies to come out this year.
The film centers on Fontaine (Boyega), a steely-eyed drug pusher living in the Glen, a predominantly Black neighborhood that’s seen better days. Haunted by the loss of his little brother and seemingly estranged from his mother, Fontaine goes about his days trying to make ends meet, shaking down clients and squaring up against would-be rival dealers looking to edge into his turf. Then, he’s ambushed and murdered. What would be the end of another film is only the beginning: Fontaine awakes the next morning in a cold sweat, miraculously unharmed and with seemingly no memory of the altercation.
With the help of smooth-talking hustler Slick Charles (Foxx) and Yo-Yo (Parris), a sex worker with dreams of escaping the Glen in search of a higher calling, Fontaine sets out to find answers. What he discovers is a sinister conspiracy that seems to have transformed his entire neighborhood into a test bed for cruel experiments.
Taylor has described They Cloned Tyrone as a movie with the spirit of a bootleg Scooby-Doo adventure, where a ragtag group of otherwise ill-equipped sleuths somehow manages to pull back the curtain on a terrifying mystery through its own peculiar brand of teamwork. Well, he nailed it. An existential mystery-thriller that vacillates between the farcical and the macabre, Taylor’s film isn’t just a rumination on the legacy of gentrification and the exploitation of minorities, but a poignant and darkly funny meditation on the power of one’s own choices and the necessity of cooperation in the face of oppression. It’s a real surprise for a Netflix Original, and that’s due in no small part to the infectious chemistry of the film’s leading trio.
Foxx steals the show in almost every scene he’s in with a flamboyant personality and uncanny knack for getting himself into and out of trouble. Parris is the heart and conscience of They Cloned Tyrone, a strong-willed woman with an eclectic range of talents and interests that make her the perfect person to put all the pieces together and rally her compatriots to action. And, of course, there’s Boyega, who delivers a terse yet multifaceted performance through the tumultuous emotional arc of Fontaine’s personal search for the truth.
There are a few noteworthy guest performances as well, but They Cloned Tyrone is at its strongest when it plays off the dynamic of Boyega, Foxx, and Parris. The balance of these personalities clashing and complementing each other, with Charles and Yo-Yo constantly bickering while Fontaine silently fumes with frustration and confusion over the entire situation, is genuinely hilarious to watch. Taylor and co-writer Tony Rettenmaier’s writing is terrific on its own, but when animated by the cast’s performances, it positively sings.
One of the most memorable exchanges in the film is a conversation between Fontaine and Slick Charles, who, after being confronted by one of the masterminds behind the experiment and sworn to secrecy at gunpoint, contemplate whether any of their experiences or choices were real to begin with. “I ain’t never had no little brother,” Fontaine tells Charles. “I still love them, though.” It’s that declaration that spurs the pair to choose their own path and join Yo-Yo in exposing the government’s deception for the good of everyone living in the Glen.
They Cloned Tyrone is a lot of things: funny, thrilling, subversively satirical, disarmingly poignant, and, above all, a blast to watch, especially in its final act. As a whole, the movie represents exactly the type of witty and original storytelling that streaming services, especially Netflix, could do with more of, and a surprise contender for one of the year’s best. Like Jordan Peele and Boots Riley, Juel Taylor comes across as a director with a keen interest in and understanding of social issues, and with a talent for weaving said topics into genre fare that is as edifying as it is enjoyable. It’s a film with heart, humor, and soul that, while reminiscent of the works of other filmmakers, is far from a clone of its predecessors, but rather something entirely its own.
They Cloned Tyrone is now available to stream on Netflix.