You’ve probably heard that some cities have taken down billboard advertisements for “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”–on the grounds that, with their almost fetishistic pictures of guns, they could promote violence. Whether or not they would is a debatable point, but there’s little doubt that the municipal authorities have chosen the wrong target. They should have left the posters up and pulled the plug on the movie. Not that it’s likely to promote violence, but it certainly will induce intense boredom, and maybe a headache.
The big draw is, presumably, the movie’s screen introduction of hot hip-hopper Curtis Jackson, aka “50 Cent,” in the lead role, playing a heavily-fictionalized version of himself. In the script fashioned by Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”), Jackson is Marcus, a fatherless New York kid (played in the first reels by Marc John Jefferies) whose loving, drug-dealing mother (Serena Reeder) is killed in a mysterious fire. Taken into their crowded home by his long-suffering grandparents (Viola Davis and Sullivan Walker), Marcus becomes infatuated with a local girl–and shows some initial talent at rappin’–but before long he’s gotten involved in pushing drugs instead (to raise cash, we’re told, to buy the new sneakers he so desperately wants). Ultimately he becomes member of an African-American drug operation in which dapper, diplomatic Levar (Bill Duke) and menacing, volatile Majestic (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are big-time players, and acquires a crew of his own; he also renews contact with his childhood sweetheart Charlene (Joy Bryant), with whom he eventually has a son. But trouble soon arises over the shooting of one of his guys by a Colombian drug lord and the vengeance Marcus takes on him. The result is that he’s framed and sent to prison, where he bonds with a voluble hustler named Bama (Terrence Howard), who names himself Marcus’ manager when the young man gets out and turns from crime to music, resuming his old rapping ways. The change doesn’t sit well with Majestic, who blocks Marcus’ career, forcing him and Bama to rob the Colombian cartel’s private bank–a job that leads to Marcus’ getting shot repeatedly in an assassination attempt. The last half-hour or so of the picture is devoted to his slow recuperation with the help of family and friends, leading to the revelation of his father’s identity, a final confrontation with Majestic, and the concert that begins his presumably meteoric rise to the top of the hip-hop charts.
Before stepping on stage for the first time, Marcus opines that all his life he’s been searching for his father, but really searching for himself–and well before you hear him say that, you might well be searching for the exit. The screenplay tries to make points by blurring the distinction between autobiographical elements from Jackson’s own life and purely fictional stuff, but the combination ends up resembling almost every other picture about inner-city drug trade made over the past couple of decades. There’s absolutely nothing distinctive about it, which is doubly surprising because it’s the first full-fledged American studio effort from director Jim Sheridan, whose Irish pictures (such as “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father”) have often been remarkable, and whose last film, “In America,” was itself a very successful exercise in cinematic semi-autobiography. Perhaps Sheridan saw the plight of young African-Americans as analogous to that of the Irish underclass he focused on in his earlier career, but if so, he hasn’t found a way to dramatize it as effectively. “Get Rich” is strangely anonymous, visually and emotionally not much different from what might have been made by any in the legion of young helmers who have come to Hollywood via careers in music video. To be fair to Sheridan, probably no one could have done much better with a film built around Jackson, who turns out to be remarkably devoid of theatrical presence ore charisma. Perhaps he has some talent as a rapper–though the evidence even of that is slim here–but as an actor he’s flat and monotonous (a fact italicized by his narration, delivered with a dull, disinterested air that makes it sound as though it’s being recited by a bored student who can’t even be bothered to enunciate clearly–lots of the words are simply swallowed and virtually incomprehensible). When at one point Marcus says, “I know I did a lot of bad things in my life,” it’s hard to resist the temptation to ascribe the sentiment to Jackson himself with reference to his performance in this movie and nod in agreement. Jackson’s amateurishness is accentuated when professionals surround him. Not that most of the younger actors are appreciably better (Akinnuoye-Agbaje chews the scenery much too forcefully, and Bryant is bland though attractive), but Howard (even though this busy, frantic turn isn’t one of his better performances–see “Crash” and “Hustle and Flow” for those) and the amusingly understated Duke easily throw him in the shade, and Davis and Walker do so, too. Even young Jefferies makes far more of the character than Jackson ever does.
Technically “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” has the dark, gloomy, ostentatiously gritty look of such urban melodramas, courtesy of cinematographer Declan Quinn, and a typically throbbing hip-hop soundtrack (courtesy of Quincy Jones, among others) which together make it seem all the more familiar and dull. This movie may make a bunch of money, but it’s D.O.A.