Jennifer Lopez steals the show in stripper crime story

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Playing a scheming stripper who rips off men and barely bats an eyelash, Jennifer Lopez has her best role since "Out of Sight" in "Hustlers," a seductive crime drama that's like "Goodfellas" with stripper poles. 

Lopez plays Ramona, the mother bear at a New York City strip club, who takes a young dancer, Destiny ("Crazy Rich Asians'" Constance Wu), under her guidance. "Climb in my fur," Ramona tells her, as she lounges on the roof of the club after a shift, clad in a massive mink.

And for the duration of the film, viewers too are wrapped up inside Ramona's world, a glittery, black-lit land of loud music and lap dances where the women are going fishing and Wall Street bankers are the big catch.

When the cash flow begins to dry up after the financial collapse of 2008, the girls have to switch things up, and they take to drugging men and emptying out their bank accounts while they're in a doped up haze of ketamine and MDMA. It ain't exactly morally sound, but the ladies justify their actions — or at least make peace with them — by figuring they're just doing to the Wall Street guys what the Wall Street guys have done to America. And that allows them to sleep at night just fine. 

Writer-director Lorene Scafaria ("The Meddler"), whose script is based on a true story from a New York magazine article, creates an air of female empowerment among her troupe of dancers, which includes Keke Palmer's Mercedes, Cardi B's Diamond and Lili Reinhart's Annabelle. Scafaria goes behind-the-scenes at the strip club and inside the private walls of the champagne room, and shows how Ramona and her fellow dancers are able to hook customers and bleed them for cash, all while staying in charge of the situation. It's no mistake the film opens to the tune of Janet Jackson's "Control."

Still, as the stakes increase, Wu's Destiny is too timid for her role — you never really buy her as the duplicitous type — and Scafaria keeps a safe distance from casting judgment on the women and their actions. But if she lets them off easy, the law did too, and nobody suffers from anything they can't walk away from.  

The fun of "Hustlers" is watching Lopez let loose. Too often in films, Lopez is cast as a meager type, just an average, everyday person living her life. (In last year's "Second Act," she played a manager at a big box store, for crying out loud.) But Jennifer Lopez is not in any way relatable to the rest of us, she's Jennifer friggin' Lopez, and it's about time she's able to realize it on screen.

Here, her stage dance to Fiona Apple's "Criminal" is a stunner and the pole dancing tricks she teaches Wu's character have more life than anything she's done on screen in the last 20 years. She's able to be bossy, powerful and vulnerable all at the same time. She's a revelation, commanding the screen even when she's just walking down the street. "Hustlers" could, and should, do for her what "Magic Mike" did for Matthew McConaughey. 

"Hustlers" doesn't dig as deep into the particulars of its maneuvering as it could, but it leaves its mark as a forceful piece of girl power. Don't hate the players when the game's this much fun. 

'Hustlers'

GRADE: B

Rated R: for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity

Running time: 110 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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