The prodigious Dare Olaitan announced his arrival in audacious form with the 2017 crime drama Ojukokoro (Greed). A welcome breath of fresh air, Ojukokoro was quite unlike anything that had come before it, a hugely impressive showcase of Olaitan’s gifts as a storyteller, writer and director.
Two years later- with a brief and better forgotten foray into scripted small screen work behind him- Olaitan reteams with producer Olufemi D. Ogunsanwo and they head back into their favorite world, the crime- greed urban industrial complex to trace how seemingly rational human beings unravel when faced with situations that deviate widely from their comfort zones.
The result is Knock Out Blessing, a thoroughly enjoyable caper that improves considerably from Ojukokoro’s cheeky yet unchecked need to show off various cinematic influences. At the same time, Knock Out Blessing inevitably loses some of the novelty and zany energy that would usually accompany the debut film.
Still, there are influences- and why shouldn’t there be? It is a Dare Olaitan film after all. But while Ojukokoro was pretty much open about them, Knock Out Blessing is a tad more subtle, and part of the fun lies in identifying the filmmakers whom Olaitan’s film is paying homage to.
The primary suspect would of course, be American Quentin Tarantino, who scratched heads back in 1994 when he arranged his classic Pulp Fiction in non-chronological sequencing. But there is also a splash of dry wit and genre hybridization that can be found in the works of the great Coen Brothers, plus the later direction of the plot calls to mind the socially conscious themes of F. Gary Gray’s actioner, Set It Off as well as criminally minded Nollywood films of the early aughts.
Knock Out Blessing starts out in a brothel and introduces two of its characters, the tough-as-nails hooker, Hannah (Meg Otanwa) and her sweetly naïve colleague, Oby (Linda Ejiofor-Suleiman). Both ladies have both run afoul of the establishment rules at the brothel that houses them and have been ordered to leave. But not before they have established contact with Blessing (Ade Laoye), a gifted boxer packing all the heat in the world in a single deadly punch.
Homeless and fleeing from a troubled past, Blessing’s ruthless fist gets Oby out of a tight corner and the three ladies find themselves on the streets taking on the world and all the ugliness it throws up, mostly in the form of scummy men.
Even though like Ojukokoro, Knock Out Blessing is an ensemble picture, the moment Blessing shows up on screen, it is pretty much clear whom the narrative belongs to. In order to play the spunky heroine, Ade Laoye is required to abandon her foreign accent and bubbly personality to adopt the brooding and tomboyish mien of a boxer who grew up in rural Abeokuta. The screenplay, credited to Olaitan doesn’t always serve her well, but she does a fantastic job with what she is given to work with.
Knock Out Blessing aka the story of Blessing is arranged in non-chronological chapters with each one painting a fuller picture of the heroine and the reasons behind the choices that she makes. Olaitan’s hand is surer, more confident behind the screen. His voice clearer, even when he isn’t sure of exactly how best to put across his messaging. Knock out Blessing is technically superior to Ojukokoro with cinematography, editing and sound departments showing tremendous improvement.
Olaitan is a fine director of actors as he repeats his achievement of coaxing solid performances out of his ensemble team. The highlight here is a scene stealing, scenery chewing performance by Buchi Franklin as the two bit crime lord, Dagogo who punches above his weight when he takes Blessing and her co-travelers under his wing and reimagines them as a tightly wound criminal operation specializing in knocking hapless men out and robbing them clean. Demola Adedoyin as the ultra-cool assassin Gowon has a striking physical presence, one that is only undercut by Olaitan’s reluctance to write in anything significant for him to do.
The story starts out with a vitality that can be considered refreshing before losing steam somewhere around the second act just before the action moves from the village to the big city. Specifically, it is a wonder how a tiny-value police station scene is allowed to go on for so long. There is an over reliance on co-incidences that gives the plot a false note and the cliffhanger ending that sets the stage for a potential sequel is more underwhelming than mouthwatering.
Olaitan’s gift is an important one and his voice so distinct, such that even when he isn’t operating at the same level as his heroine’s sucker punch, he remains miles ahead of his peers, swinging wildly, missing some but scoring his fair share of hits.