Whatever else the late gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur was, he was a good movie actor. He was good in Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice” and he was the best thing in John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice,” opposite Janet Jackson. He’s even more appealing as the soulful half of a strung-out buddy team alongside Tim Roth in “Gridlock’d,” Vondie Curtis Hall’s lively black - in both senses of the word - comedy of survival.
One doesn’t expect irony and absurdity in blood-soaked urban drug sagas. But Hall makes them the backbone of the comedy and makes the comedy a lot more character-driven than the urban warfare genre norm. At times, “Gridlock’d” suggests a Detroit speedball version of “Some Like It Hot.”
It’s launched on New Year’s Eve, when the two musician buddies are forced to undertake an emergency room run to save the life of the OD’d singer for whom they play (Thandie Newton in another impressive performance, like nothing she’s previously done). While waiting, Shakur’s Spoon, the more survival-oriented one, lays down an ultimatum. He and his buddy, Roth’s Stretch, are going to kick the habit while they still can. With an irony he cannot know he was putting in the late performer’s mouth, Hall has Spoon say, “You ever feel like your luck’s running out? Lately I feel my luck’s been running out.” OK, Stretch says, they’ll do it. But first he’s got to get high one more time.
Doing so means they’re mistaken for the killers of the dealer, whose apartment they enter only to find him lying in a pool of blood, his girlfriend murdered, too, the place wrecked. When Stretch grabs the heroin stash the man was killed for, the cops think they did it. Then the killers start chasing them, too. But facing the killers and the cops turns out to be a lot less nightmarish than facing the bureaucracy into which they fall when they try to get into detox. Kept waiting in slow-moving lines, they’re shoved through a maze.
Shakur is totally convincing as the patient one; Roth doesn’t miss a twitch as the jumpy little dreg who pushes the envelope. There’s an obvious chemistry between Shakur (whose last film, “Gang Related,” is due later this year) and Roth. The latter puts amusing spin on the tightly coiled criminal type of which he’s making a specialty - if not cornering the market.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Gridlock’d” Locations: North Division cinemas Credits: Directed and written by Vondie Curtis Hall, starring Tim Roth, Tupac Shakur, Thandie Newton, Tom Towles, Howard Hesseman, Hall Running time: 1:31 Rating: R