Like the Eminem starrer "8 Mile", "Get Rich or Die Tryin'", starring rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, takes many elements from the rap star's real life and folds them into the contours of a quasi-fictional film that charts the entertainer's path through poverty and despair to stardom. Both stories are similar in that this path is littered with daunting obstacles, which its true-life hero did overcome. The difference here is that for all its biographical truth, "Get Rich"'s journey into a ghetto of hustlers, gangstas and mindless violence is all too familiar.
Stretching back to blaxploitation in the '70s to recent films by John Singleton, Ernest Dickerson and others, we've moved down these mean streets, watched drive-by shootings and witnessed drug deals and gang feuds ad infinitum. Fortunately for the film's boxoffice, it will draw from two distinct demographics. Director Jim Sheridan has a definite following in major urban markets, colleges and special venues thanks to such films as "In America" and "My Left Foot", while 50 Cent, of course, has a huge following among rap fans and blacks. So boxoffice looks strong.
Sheridan and writer Terence Winter
, once a staff writer on "The Sopranos", do have several things going for them to partially offset the been-there, done-that feeling. One is a ruthlessly unsentimental and nonjudgmental approach to a life mired in poverty, where crime seems the only way out. The film offers no emotional pleas or social messages; rather, its makers deliver an unblinking distillation of the urban experience for far too many young black males.
Another positive is 50 Cents himself. There should be no surprise that rappers such as Eminem and 50 Cent prove talented actors. As performers onstage, performers who have renamed themselves, they have long played a character based on but not to be confused with their own personas. They are actors.
50 Cent's range is not as wide as Eminem's, but he creates plenty of empathy for the fatherless boy, here called Marcus, whose drug-dealer mom (Serena Reeder
) dies when he is 12. Marcus' grandparents take him in, but the boy heads down the only path he sees open to him when he gets into crime just like his mom.
The film hits all the well-publicized highlights of the life of 50 Cent in his ascension in a gang of drug dealers, their war with Colombian dealers, a flirtation with rap that never takes hold since crime seems so much easier and finally the nine gunshot wounds that miraculously failed to take his life.
In cinematographic terms, Winter's screenplay is always in intense medium close-up, never pulling back for a wider angle of society or even New York. Does his character really have no other options than crime? Does society take any blame? Could his grandparents (Viola Davis and Sullivan Walker
) have intervened? The film doesn't even ask. It just barrels ahead with a life heading for tragedy that, again miraculously, takes a detour into creativity. That it leads to musical success is merely gravy. For the portrait here is one of creativity winning the day and saving a life -- or maybe several -- when Marcus' girlfriend (Joy Bryant
) gives birth to his son and he accepts responsibility for his family's well-being.
As with all Sheridan movies, this one contains fine acting. The suddenly hot Terrence Howard
stands out as Bama, a fellow ex-con and friend who encourages Marcus' move into rap and winds up as his manager. London-born Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje brings an icy chill to his portrait of a gangsta whose friendship can turn lethal in a moment.
Veteran Bill Duke enters "Godfather" territory with his heavy-limbed, dignified portrait of a ruthless drug kingpin. Newcomer Reeder shows exceptional talent and beauty as Marcus' mother.
And, as with many Sheridan movies, the director demonstrates a fascination with how family units function and flourish under adverse conditions. It is especially attentive to the changing attitudes of its lead character, who is marvelously played as a child by Marc John Jefferies
until 50 Cent can take over.
The soundtrack is not, fortunately, chockablock with music and rap. Music is used discreetly for dramatic impact, though there is more than enough to guarantee huge album sales. Declan Quinn and designer Mark Geraghty
, both of whom worked with Sheridan on "In America", definitely capture the grit and seemingly omnipresent darkness of the South Bronx.
GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN'
An Interscope/Shady/Aftermath/MTV Films production
Director: Jim Sheridan
Screenwriter: Terence Winter
Producers: Jimmy Iovine
, Paul Rosenberg, Chris Lighty
, Jim Sheridan
Executive producers: Gene Kirkwood
, Stuart Parr
, Van Toffler
, David Gale, Arthur Lappin
, Daniel Lupi
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Mark Geraghty
Music: Quincy Jones
, Gavin Friday
, Maurice Seezer
Costumes: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Editors: Conrad Buff, Roger Barton
Marcus: Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson
Bama: Terrence Howard
Charlene: Joy Bryant
Levar: Bill Duke
Majestic: Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje
Keryl: Omar Benson Miller
Justice: Tory Kittles
Grandma: Viola Davis
Young Marcus: Marc John
Antwan: Ashley Walters
Katrina: Serena Reeder
Running time -- 112 minutes
MPAA rating: R