There’s something different about Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. Sure, he raps about the gangsta lifestyle, but when you see him in interviews, he’s soft spoken, humorous, and charming. He’s just about the only gangsta rapper who isn’t afraid to smile. Jackson’s feature debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, clearly uses the Eminem/Curtis Hanson drama 8 Mile as its template: take one big-time rapper doing a thinly-veiled version of his own life story, add a solid script (this time by “The Sopranos” scribe Terence Winter) and put an A-list director (Jim Sheridan) behind the camera.
Jackson plays Marcus, a low level drug dealer on the mean streets of New York. In one scene, he explains via voice-over that pushing drugs is not as profitable as it seems because if you divide the money you make by the number of hours you stand around waiting to make a sale, it’s less than minimum wage. Marcus ended up in this position almost by accident. He never knew his father, and his mother was a dealer/prostitute who got murdered when he was a child. Needing money for fancy sneakers, he more or less picked up where his mother left off, peddling drugs on a street corner.
As a young adult, he gets in with a local pusher named Majestic (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Majestic is so impressed with his protégé’s drive that he introduces Marcus to the kingpin, Levar (Bill Duke). “You’re like a god to me,” Marcus says. “I am God,” Levar replies. Meanwhile, a whole turf war is going on between Levar’s gang and another gang. People are getting shot left and right. Levar and the other gang’s leader negotiate peace, but Majestic interrupts that process for his own gain. Marcus gets caught in the middle of things and ends up in prison for drug possession. During his hours in solitary confinement, he starts venting his feelings by writing rap songs. A fellow convict named Bama (Terrence Howard) admires the tunes and offers to manage Marcus once they both get out.
Eventually he regains his freedom, tells Majestic he’s quitting, and starts making demos of his songs. Marcus also carries on a relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Charlene (Joy Bryant). She likes his desire to stay out of trouble, and worries when Majestic starts trying to pull him back in. Everything comes to a head when Marcus is shot nine times (much like 50 Cent himself). He miraculously survives and finds that his rapping voice has a new painful quality that nicely matches his down-and-dirty lyrics.
When I first heard that the director of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was Jim Sheridan, I was stunned. On the surface, the Oscar-nominated Irish filmmaker would seem to be an odd match for the gangsta rapper. On closer inspection though, it makes sense. Sheridan’s films have typically been about characters overcoming adversity to follow their passion: Christy Brown becoming an artist in spite of cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, a young man fighting to clear his innocent father’s name in In the Name of the Father, an Irish dad trying to give his family a better life in In America. This time, Sheridan’s canvass is the gritty inner city, where Marcus tries to escape the criminal lifestyle by turning to his love of music. The director was a good choice: he understands the story’s theme and he captures the gritty feel of Marcus’s world without ever falling into exploitation.
This is a story that’s simultaneously the same and different. The idea of an impoverished, troubled young man trying to lift himself up by the bootstraps through rap music was done in Eminem’s 8 Mile and last summer’s Hustle & Flow (which coincidentally starred Terrence Howard). Those are slightly better films because they had a lot more immediacy; they tapped into hip hop’s unique accessibility that puts stardom within arms reach of unknowns. By contrast, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ has surprisingly little music in it. The focus is more on the drug dealing turf war that Marcus gets tangled up in and then tries to get out of.
It’s probably better that the movie went its own way though. Why try to do what’s already been done beautifully twice before? I think that Winter’s screenplay – based fairly substantially on Jackson’s life – comes up with some intriguing twists. Late in the film, Marcus decides he needs to get revenge on Majestic. However, he doesn’t want to do it with weapons; instead he pens (and records) a rap song that spells out all of Majestic’s dirty deeds. The idea is to humiliate him and to give the guy’s other enemies plenty of ammunition. This plot point fits perfectly with 50 Cent’s real-life style, especially the way he aurally decimated rival rapper Ja Rule on his first CD.
So now the million dollar question: Can 50 act? Like Eminem, he’s really good at playing (basically) himself. This is a compliment. Some people can’t even do that. (See: Simon Cowell’s cameo in Scary Movie 3.) Jackson more or less lived this story, and his performance brings real authenticity. What’s more surprising is that he nails the gentle moments just as well as the hard-edged ones. Marcus’s transition from street thug to ambitious musician feels genuine, as does the romance between him and Charlene. Could 50 Cent play someone not so similar to himself? Well, with his natural intensity, I’d bet he could play a great villain in another movie.
It’s impossible to separate Marcus’s story from Curtis Jackson’s. We’re probably not supposed to anyway. I’ve heard the 50 Cent CDs. They’re full of pain and rage. It would seem easy to dismiss them as more gangsta “product,” but you can’t. 50 Cent has risen to the top of the rap game because he’s not posing. This is really the life he knows. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ pulled me in for that same reason. The movie doesn’t glamorize the gangsta lifestyle; it exposes that lifestyle for all its emptiness and hopelessness. This is a good film about a good man who has done some bad things. All he wants to do is sublimate his pain into something more positive. He wants to improve himself. That desire makes him a force to be reckoned with.
( out of four)
Get Rich or Die Tryin' is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content, sexuality and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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