A/K/A Tommy Chong is an interesting look at the doper comedian's legal troubles in the early 2000s. For those who don't remember, the U.S. Government arrested Chong because he sold bongs over the Internet. Filmmaker Josh Gilbert follows Chong to prison (where he served nine months) and covers his life after his release.
There is a lot to like in this film. The film recounts Chong's life story and he is an interesting character; he grew up half-Chinese, half-Caucasian in 1950s Canada. Chong also played guitar as a member of the 1960s rock band the Vancouvers, for whom he wrote a top-40 hit ("Does Your Mama Know About Me").
The film does a good job of recounting Chong's initial meeting with Cheech Marin and the beginnings of their career as "Cheech and Chong." I did not think that the film did a particularly good job of explaining Cheech's decision to disband Cheech and Chong. The only interviews with Cheech are archival and Cheech's absence is obvious throughout A/K/A Tommy Chong.
The presentation of Chong's drug case is more "hit and miss." Viewers likely will be fascinated at the steps to which the Feds went to bust Chong. (According to Chong, his company did not ship bongs to Pennsylvania because his employees knew that it was illegal; the film details the contrivances the Feds used to get Chong to ship the bongs that ultimately landed him in prison to Pennsylvania). It is difficult to believe that the U.S. Government spent over $12 million to put Chong in jail. While one may question whether there was a vendetta against Chong, it is revealing that he was the lone defendant without a prison record (of 55 charged) to serve jail time.
Other aspects of the film are not as interesting. Many of the peripheral characters in Chong's life appear in the film, but contribute little. Chong's wife Shelby comes off as his Yoko Ono - an untalented schemer who got her husband to put her on stage. Chong's cellmate and his son (Paris) both appear in segments that should have been cut. There is a boring series of interviews in which people explain how easy it is to make a bong.
The film "stacks the deck" in Tommy's favor, so you might wonder if there is another side to the story. The Government officials who prosecuted Chong are all but accused of fascism. (Filmmaker Gilbert takes a cheap shot in noting that prosecutor Mary Beth Buchanan grew up in "an all-white town," as though that alone is sufficient to reveal her dastardly plans). Gilbert also includes interviews with self-aggrandizing celebrities such as Jay Leno, Bill Maher, and journalist Eric Schlosser.
In the end, despite its shortcomings, A/K/A Tommy Chong is well worth a look. Chong recounts toward the end of the film that many people ask him what prison life is like. Chong said that he replies, "You'll find out." That line made me think. Whatever your politics, the film will force you to consider what role the U.S. Government should play in regulating drugs and punishing those who break drug laws. (Perhaps this is the first Tommy Chong film that ever forced anyone to think). As to whether Tommy is a martyr, a stoner who pushed the Government "over the line," or a little of both, viewers will have to judge for themselves.