I'll admit that I became nervous during the opening moments of Chris Rock's fifth stand-up special for HBO, Kill the Messenger. It wasn't anything the comic was saying. That was all funny. It was what he was wearing.
I'll explain. The special was filmed at three different concerts in three different countries: South Africa, England and America. During the "New York" segments, Rock wears a flashy, vinyl/leather black jacket similar to the purple vinyl/leather jumpsuit thing Eddie Murphy wore in Eddie Murphy: Raw. Whatever -- I'm no fashion expert -- but the jacket caused a thought to flash in my mind for a minute. Would this be the moment when Chris Rock became a rock star in his own mind? Would his ego overshadow his comedy? Would Kill the Messenger be his Raw?
The answer, thankfully, is 'no.' In his fifth special, Rock is as funny as he's ever been -- almost. I can't say that Kill the Messenger is as strong as either Bring the Pain or 2004's Never Scared, but it's still as funny or funnier that two-thirds of most stand-up comedy out there right now.
Part of what makes Messenger so strong is that it was recorded just months before the potential election of the first African-American President (go back and listen to Bring the Pain from '96 and hear Rock talk about how a black guy will never even be Vice-President, much less President). The entire first third of the special is devoted to politics and race, and it's the strongest section; Rock remains one of the sharpest and most refreshingly honest observers of modern America.
The remainder of the set suffers a little by comparison. Compared to the pointed timeliness of his political material, a long bit about the differences between men and women feels a little tired (and, at times, kind of misogynistic -- once again conjuring memories of Eddie Murphy: Raw). Rock is able to mine this territory better than most, but it's far from the best material he's ever written or performed.
A word about the "style" of the special. While at first it seems like the whole 'three countries' thing is little more than a gimmick, it does offer some valuable insight into Rock as a comedian. For the most part, the show edits the three performances seamlessly into one another. But more than once, it's edited in such a way that it repeats certain lines or phrases for emphasis (Rock likes to repeat things normally, so it becomes a bit of overkill) and you're able to see just how well-rehearsed and consistent Rock is as a comic. Every gesture, every cadence, every inflection has been honed so that all the performances are almost exactly alike -- even though so much of it feels like Rock is improvising it on the spot.