What exactly can elevate a film that’s coated in habitual tropes to its core? The answers are obviously wide-ranging, but Concrete Cowboy seeks to go the route of finding an interesting subculture to surround its hackneyed material. Such a milieu is North Philadelphia’s black cowboy enclave, a place where horse stables sit contrasted against the rapidly gentrifying area around them. Adapting G. Neri’s novel Ghetto Cowboy, director Ricky Staub looks to gallop this extraordinary setting into a coming-of-age story, as it follows troubled adolescent Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), who receives a shot at redemption and growth when he lands back with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba), who’s a respected figure in the horse-filled Fletcher street in Philly. Yet such gallivanting can’t bargain the film away from its vague platitudes, scattered plotting, and sample platter-like construction.
Relatively early on though, Concrete Cowboy situates its environment with some sense of being lived-in: Everyone in the neighborhood seems familiar with an unspoken code to break down the arrogance of young men like Cole, prone to falling into trouble, with back-breaking labor; as he scoops manure, veterans attempt to pass on lessons in both horsemanship and everyday life. It’s in such a process that Cole, of course, superficially connects with one of the horses, which is famous for its untamed, wild behavior. It’s an allegory of obvious proportions that juxtaposes the animal’s instinctual rejection of captivity to the black riders’ struggle to keep their way of life intact. Yet, at the same time, by making Cole the only one who can communicate with the wild horse, the message is rendered muddled.
Even as several cast members in supporting roles are real-life riders from Fletcher Street, their presence doesn’t really lend the film any subtly or a vast authenticity. Likely because they’re only given self-important speeches and trite exposition to deliver, as if each of their lines were intended to convey meaningful information as opposed to resonating naturally within the world. Of the professional actors, McLaughlin delivers in terms of playing angst-filled naiveté, playing a kid at the mercy of conflicting influences on opposite directions of the moral spectrum. As his nearly non-verbal dad, Elba brings a nonchalance to the role that proves imposing whenever he is on screen. Yet, by design, his character gets little emotional depth other than a moment explaining why he abandoned his son. And even that confession comes with the caveat of divulging details in a conspicuous manner.
On the other end of the aforementioned moral spectrum is Smush (Jharrel Jerome), Cole’s childhood friend pulling him in the direction of drug dealing. Despite Jerome’s inherent charisma, the character still comes off more like a device than a full human, with his fate being blatantly predictable and having no sense of subversion within the cipher-like tendencies. The same goes for Method Man’s Leroy, a conflicted police officer in the community who seems to only be there to advance the plot rather than navigate his difficult position.
Yet such an aspect kind of speaks about Staub’s overall approach to Concrete Cowboy: To generally overstuff it all. From the sense of displacement to Cole’s romance with a fellow rider, the film is a scattered buffet put onto one narrative plate that’s begging to be taken as piecemeal. Which only forces the end result to dilute the more inspired elements by simply cluttering its drama with any and everything that seemed available. Though it teases to possibly bring a new feel to the western, Concrete Cowboy is bogged down in surface-level cliché, thin tropes, and rote drama.
Concrete Cowboy is available to stream on Netflix