Friday, June 22, 2012

Overlooked Gems #36: Gridlock'd

Grade: 73 (B+)

I love hip hop. I do not love Tupac Shakur. Don’t get me wrong: Tupac was ridiculously talented as a rapper and certainly made a lot of great music (his best songs are well worth it). But I’ve never found his albums half as satisfying as the work of his contemporaries: Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube. Too many songs are marred by lousy production or gangsta pandering. The man had a wider range than his imitators, but he hid that range too often. That’s why if someone asks me which Tupac album to grab, I’d recommend his Greatest Hits (all of the great singles without the filler) rather than Me Against the World or All Eyez On Me (and definitely avoid anything that came after his death). Tupac also had a side career as one of the more promising rappers turned actors (see also: Ice Cube), though here too he found a number of roles that relegated him to “shouting gangster” (see the memorably nutzoid Mickey Rourke movie Bullet). Gridlock’d is different. One of his final roles before his untimely death, it is the only film that truly suggested the depth of his talent as an actor.

Spoon (Shakur) and Stretch (Tim Roth) are the bassist and pianist of a Detroit jazz-poetry trio, and both are hopelessly addicted to heroin. When their singer Cookie (Thandie Newton) ODs on New Year’s Eve, the two realize how bleak their situation is and make a resolution to kick their habit. But getting into a detox program isn’t as easy as it seems: they run from department to department, only to get the runaround and learn that it takes several weeks, if not longer, to check into rehab. To make matters worse, their dealer is murdered, the cops blame them, and the drug kingpin who really did it is chasing after them.

Gridlock’d sounds bleak, but is in fact a deliriously funny black comedy. It’s hardly the first film to take a blackly comic look at addiction and the attempts to kick (and it can’t reach the heights of Drugstore Cowboy or Trainspotting, the latter of which was released less than a year earlier), but writer-director Vondie Curtis-Hall gets a lot of mileage of throwing his protagonists through the ringer as they try desperately to get clean, with no help from a government that has clearly written them off. The bureaucrats, meanwhile, don’t just blow the characters off: they blow up at them.  It’s a great combination of comedy and social awareness.

Curtis-Hall has no illusions that they aren’t responsible for their addictions, but he empathizes with them and wants the best for them. The writer-director showed great promise with this film before his career unfortunately tanked with the Mariah Carey vehicle Glitter (one of the worst films of the 2000s). His film plays like a great jazz number (or a socially conscious hip hop song, if you will): it’s wonderfully alive, cool, and more than a little bit sad. The great soundtrack by Stewart Copeland of The Police (whose soundtrack for Rumble Fish is absolutely astounding) doesn’t hurt.

The film’s cast is uniformly terrific, from the tiny appearances by independent filmmaker  John Sayles and voice of Roger Rabbit Charles Fleischer to larger supporting roles from Lucy Liu and Thandie Newton. Roth and Shakur carry the film, however. As the eternally apoplectic and ill-tempered Stretch, Roth gives a great comic performance as a man who’s falling apart at all turns but hiding it through humor. His interaction with a couple of cops late in the film is priceless, as is his justification for using the word “nigga” as a “term of fucking endearment” to a visibly annoyed Shakur. Shakur is the straight man, for the most part, but he’s arguably even funnier in his attempts to be cool under pressure (him trying to figure out where he needs to be stabbed in order to not get hurt too badly is pretty terrific). Moreover, he has the more quietly emotional and vulnerable role in the film. We lost a real actor with Shakur’s death. Pity that the film did poorly upon its release. Maybe too many people wanted to see the gangsta.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

No comments:

Post a Comment