During the elongated pre-credits sequence, lead character Leroy (Tom Sizemore) narrates over a brisk montage of his life up to this point: born into a family devoted to the practices of the Ku Klux Klan; indoctrinated into the cult at an early age; eventually rising in status to the position of grand dragon as an adult.

This brings us to the present tense, where we find Leroy thrust into a Texan prison farm for throwing a Mexican passenger out of his speeding car (the reason for which later becomes apparent). Cultivating the warden’s prized potatoes on the chain gang is something he manages to just about put up with. But sharing a cell is an altogether bigger challenge …

To begin with though, he has it good while sharing with likeminded buffoon Bubba (Kevin P Farley). In-between sharing their fascist views, their only bugbear is the weekly meetings they’re forced to attend with overly enthusiastic warden Merville (Stacey Keach). He’s determined to rehabilitate both men, despite their continued resistance.

When an unfortunate incident involving a piece of baked potato sends Bubba to the infirmary, Merville summons Leroy to his office once more. He sees this as the perfect opportunity to introduce him to a new cellmate capable of perhaps changing his narrow-minded opinions: enter Emilio (Hector Jimenez).

Merville sells the idea of sharing a cell with Emilio as an opportunity for Leroy to break the radical Mexican activist’s spirit … "but nothing else".

As it turns out, Emilio is an affable if somewhat excitable chatterbox. He never shuts up, much to Leroy’s simmering chagrin. Tensions rise and the future doesn’t like bright for either of them.

Until, that is, Leroy notices the cute young Madalena (Olga Segura) cleaning Merville’s office during his weekly rehabilitation chats. Yes, she’s Mexican. However, she’s hot and Leroy slowly but surely becomes fixated with her.

Predictably perhaps, he sets aside his prejudices whenever he can so that he can befriend his cellmate and obtain his help in winning Madalena’s heart.

In the meantime, farm labourer Emilio needs assistance writing a letter to the US government to put forward the case of his wrongful arrest. It soon becomes a case of "you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours" as an unlikely friendship between the mismatched convicts blossoms.

Sizemore, affecting a convincing Southern accent, is very good. As you would expect. He hams it up because the script dictates that he should, but that air of danger that he’s always carried is still there. He’s not the greatest when it comes to comic timing and he looks decidedly knackered these days, however he still does "pissed off" extremely well.

Jimenez (from NACHO LIBRE) is good too. Ditto Farley, brother of the late comedian Chris. But both are consistently outshone by the wonderful Keach. He revels in a role which requires him to be both a fountain of wisdom and a hopeless bigot. He nails it in a manner so authentic that you have to wonder whether it’s not the real Keach that we’re seeing on the screen.

Jesse Baget (EL MASCARADO MASSACRE) directs from a script he co-wrote with Stefania Moscato. Despite the actors’ best efforts, it is here where the main problem lies.

It’s probably safe to say BLAZING SADDLES remains the benchmark for comedies that dare to explore the ugly matter of racism. While CELLMATES begins with an eye to covering similar ground, it’s ultimately far too tame to achieve any real impact.

Although we’re initially invited to sympathise with Leroy when his new cellmate proves to be a major irritant, this potentially troublesome stance is swiftly cast aside as the film takes a positively old-fashioned, ‘screwball’ approach to its comedy. Considering the subject matter, this is alarmingly gentle fare.

The lasting impression is one of a film that, despite some fine set design and strong performances, feels like a TV movie too scared to push buttons that the channel executives aren’t going to approve of. It’s rarely funny, and therefore is seldom thought-provoking.

CELLMATES, then, is a comedy sorely lacking in the bite that its concept and lead actor may suggest. It plays it safe, serving up temperate humour where a more confrontational, satirical approach may have actually found something valid to say about the idiocy of racism.

Still, the film is warm at its core and certainly comes at you with some pace. It should also appeal to anyone who’s been in search of a Tom Sizemore film that’s safe to watch with their Gran.

CELLMATES is currently available as a Video-On-Demand title from Amazon.com.

Review by Stuart Willis

Directed by Jesse Baget