It would take a critic more churlish than this one to sneer and bare chicken-like talons at Roll Bounce, a formulaic crowd-pleaser that hits familiar marks, but does so well enough that it's hard to fault anyone involved. The retro-'70s vibe seems kind of obvious, and the irritating Mike Epps, who expends a lot of effort being aggressively unfunny, is somehow still employed. But director Malcolm D. Lee, who played the retro groove thang broadly in Undercover Brother, dives so wholeheartedly and unironically into this movie about, yes, roller disco, that the faults seem minor. And star Bow Wow, who was still "Li'l" when he starred in the surprisingly satisfying basketball comedy Like Mike, may not be all the way big yet, but he proves capable of carrying a film.
The year is 1978, and Bow Wow's character Xavier (X for short) heads up a small posse of roller skaters, who vaguely resemble Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, except that none of them is deformed. Though initially somewhat interchangeable, each member of the gang eventually develops some distinctive features. Naps (The Rookie's Rick Gonzalez) is a Puerto Rican with an unwieldy Afro that makes him the butt of many hair jokes, despite the fact that virtually everyone else onscreen also has some degree of 'fro-ness. Junior (Brandon T. Jackson, a former extra) is the bigmouth who's always ready with an obligatory "Yo mama..." joke. Mixed Mike (Holes' Khleo Thomas) is the youngest, and is half-white. And Boo (Marcus T. Paulk) is...well...he's not one of the other three.
The local South Side roller rink closes down early on, leaving the gang without a place to hang out. Eventually they make a trip to the North Side, where, at a place called Sweetwater's, they are surprised to see white people and horrified to discover the music of the Bee Gees. They also run afoul of an arrogant posse of skaters who work backup for the biggest star in roller disco -- a buff loverboy with an early-Prince look who goes by the nom-de-skates "Sweetness" (Wesley Jonathan). A challenge is thrown down, and our climax is set up: a roller dance-off is coming, pitting the teams against each other for a cash prize and -- more important -- bragging rights. The cash becomes surprisingly irrelevant, as movies like this normally come up with some medical emergency or something that the money would just about cover. Thankfully, the temptation to insert obligatory tragedy is resisted.
There is a wee bit of pathos, stemming from the fact that Xavier's mother has died and his relationship with his father (Chi McBride) has suffered ever since. Dad, recently laid off from a job in aviation, pretends to still go to work every morning, but in fact is unemployed; it's implied that he can't get work worthy of his qualifications because of his skin color. Meanwhile, the local garbage collectors (Mike Epps and Charlie Murphy) deride him for being an Uncle Tom Nixon-voter, a conclusion they reach based on the fact that he wears a suit.
In classic teen-movie style, there are of course girls -- one a modest tomboy (Jurnee Smollett, best known as the title character in Eve's Bayou) and the other a cleavage-flaunting hottie (24-year-old Meagan Good, playing younger with a body that belies it). You think you know where this is going...but maybe not. The tomboy's mother is single, as is Xavier's dad, and it would be out of character to get too creepy with the Brady Bunch stuff.
Perhaps the best surprise in the cast is Nick Cannon, utterly boring as a lead in Drumline and Underclassman, but a standout here as a Sweetwater's clerk who dresses like Jimi Hendrix and makes out with white girls. Cannon had his own sketch comedy on Nickelodeon, and it appears to be a strength of his; despite his good looks, character acting may be the way to go. Speaking of which, Wayne Brady and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels are unrecognizable in their comedy cameos as DJs.
Many of the music choices are obligatory and obvious: "I'm Your Boogie Man," "Le Freak," "Easy" and the horribly overplayed "Kung Fu Fighting." Other selections fare better -- Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" has never sounded so good. As if to remind the viewer that booty must be shaken, the camera almost excessively focuses on female rear ends. On the other hand, though, Roll Bounce seems to go out of its way to avoid offending family audiences with profanity. "Shoot" and "mug" are the most frequent insults on display.