Joseph Kahn is a different breed of filmmaker. Before releasing his latest film, Bodied, the prolific music video director had just two feature titles to his name — the adrenaline junkie action movie Torque (2004) and the lively slasher-comedy Detention (2011). Although Bodied may be Kahn’s weirdest flick yet, it somehow fits in perfectly with his tiny oeuvre, complementing what’s come before while staking a claim, once again, for him as somebody who should definitely make more movies.
Bodied’s setting is the colorful world of battle rap; somewhere most viewers likely haven’t been since Eminem (who takes a producer credit here) was hanging ’round 8 Mile. Disney star Calum Worthy is, ostensibly, a stand-in for the artist formerly known as Marshall Mathers. He’s Adam, a white, wiry, college kid working on an ill-judged thesis on the subculture.
He’s introduced as a battle is about to commence, hanging out on the sidelines and enthusiastically explaining the lingo to his blatantly unimpressed girlfriend, who chastises him for being fascinated with something so hateful and misogynist. Once everybody is finished throwing down, Adam approaches his favorite rapper, Behn Grymm (named after the Fantastic Four character, played by a soulful Jackie Long), hopeful for an interview.
The two strike up an unlikely friendship that throws Adam headfirst into the battle rap scene, particularly as it becomes clear he can spin a rhyme himself. Via various battles, parties and once-in-a-lifetime shots at redemption, Adam finds his personal life torn apart while entry into a world hitherto closed off to him grows ever more enticing. Along the way, allegiances are tested and battle lines — both figuratively and otherwise — are drawn.
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Bodied is a blisteringly urgent and inescapably topical meditation on race, class and identity; the kind of movie that could only be told with the panache and in-your-face directness of Kahn. His music video sensibilities come to the fore in the brilliantly shot battle rap sequences, which ooze with tension and never once feel like what they are: two people talking in a basement, a warehouse or, in one hilarious instance, worse.
This is a world with which Kahn is evidently quite familiar, and of which he is hugely fond, but he doesn’t make the audience feel like spectators, or intruders. Through Adam, and with the integration of real-life battle rappers, he involves outsiders in the spectacle to the extent that it’s easy to forget this is even a movie. Bodied frequently feels like a live event happening in real time.
Worthy, who up until now was most famous for playing a goofy Himbo in Austin & Ally, is a revelation in the lead role. Adam isn’t a clean-cut nice guy, nor is he an outright villain. He makes some glaring errors in judgement over the course of Bodied, particularly when it comes to isolating himself from his core friend group once the battles get more intense, but his raw talent is undeniable.
The idea of having to rap at speed on set proved too much for the previously cast actor, whom Kahn hinted — to a stunned Frightfest crowd, at the sole European screening of the movie — may have been a certain Arrow star. Whoever it was, the guy got cold feet a short while before production commenced, leading Worthy to step up to the plate.
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When questioned by Kahn during a Q&A about why he chose to take on such a difficult role, the Disney alum replied simply, “Because I’m an actor.” It might seem like a simple distinction, but there’s a difference between a wannabe movie star and someone who’s looking to hone his or her craft. Something similar happened earlier this year with Worthy’s Austin & Ally co-star Ross Lynch, who shocked everyone by playing notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in My Friend Dahmer, and doing a bloody good job of it, too.
In Bodied, Worthy sinks his teeth into the role of Adam, tearing strips off as he goes. He manages to convey being completely out of his depth, and way too comfortable in his surroundings, purely with a flicker of his eyes (often within the same scene). He’s a wonder in the battle rap sequences, too, spitting rhymes with a speed and agility nobody would ever suspect from this skinny, white nerd.
While tussling with ball-busting girlfriend Maya (a wonderfully nuanced, and frequently hilarious, Rory Uphold), Adam straddles the line between innocent bystander and utter asshole, who gets what’s coming to him after crucially underestimating her. Their scenes are some of the funniest and most frustrating in the movie, with the strained, immature relationship perfectly portrayed.
Bodied is consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious, whether it’s Adam thinking of rap-based burns for his tragically woke college friends at a dinner party or voicing his disdain for Maya after she unwittingly forces him to do so over a vegan lunch. But the jokes cut deep, both for the characters and those watching, as Kahn questions the casual acceptance of racism in our culture.
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Adam’s fledgling crew is a lively and diverse bunch, comprising of him, Behn, a token Latino, a token Asian and a token curvy black woman. They’re all obvious stereotypes, all finding it difficult to make their names. Gradually, they learn to use their setbacks to their advantage. Kahn gives these kids hidden depths and fully-formed personalities, while the performances — strong across the board, not a dud in the bunch — more than match the material.
Bodied is the ideal movie for this particular cultural moment, with white supremacists out in force and otherwise good people suddenly confused about what they should and should not be doing and saying. Kahn is clearly enraged over our Trumpian dystopia, but he poses tough questions in an energetic, stylish manner so there’s less risk of alienating self-identified “woke” folks.
Through the fundamentally flawed character of Adam, Kahn makes it clear there are no easy answers, that things aren’t black and white, and that we all need to try harder to make things better, and to accept our own personal shortcomings. Bodied is a furious and fun battle rap movie, but it’s also an indictment of the current situation, and a call to arms for everybody to stand up and be counted, to take some responsibility for the mess we’re in.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.