October 10, 1997 in Seven

Shakur’s Finale Can’t Save ‘Gang Related’

Chris Vognar The Dallas Morning News
 

We’d all like our fallen thespians to go out with a flourish, but Hollywood mediocrity tends to intercede. Peter Sellers bowed out with “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.” Raul Julia’s big-screen epitaph will always remain “Street Fighter.” Now, here’s hoping Tupac Shakur won’t be remembered for his final film.

“Gang Related” is a staggeringly average corrupt-cop yarn that gets by only on the strength of the late rap star’s talent. There are surely those who would rather not give Shakur his due as an actor; it’s so much easier to view him as a musical troublemaker who dabbled in film during his spare time. But anyone who saw “Juice” or this year’s vastly underrated “Gridlock’d” knows we lost a blossoming screen artist when Shakur was gunned down last autumn.

Love him, hate him, feign indifference. But the man was a natural in front of the camera. You can see it in the way he drags a cigarette, with a mixture of nonchalance and desperation, or the craft with which he plies layers of tragedy onto even the most cardboard characters. He’s the silk ribbon on the sowish “Gang Related,” teaming with an overmatched Jim Belushi in a project that screams “straight to video” from start to finish.

Shakur and Belushi play narcotics officers with a nice little scam rolling on the side: Stage a drug deal, kill the dealer and recapture the booty for the next transaction. As the film opens, we find our heroes choosing the wrong mark - the dealer they whack (played by Kool Moe Dee) is an undercover agent, and his partner wants the trigger-pullers found.

It’s not a bad premise, and things get fairly amusing as the pair embark on a search for the ideal frame victim. There’s a certain comic panache to their strategy - drag a random thug in to be interrogated, get his prints on the gun and try to put him in the right place and time. Dennis Quaid turns in some solid work as a homeless man ensnared in the game, and James Earl Jones is his usual regal self as a quietly righteous lawyer. If Belushi had ever been in a decent film before, save “Salvador,” there might have been reason to hope.

But “Gang Related” never even follows lesson one in the Cop Graft Handbook: Make us care a little about the grafters. What makes these crooked cops tick? Do they hate dealers? Are they closet moralists? Raging capitalists? You don’t need a rich “L.A. Confidential” tableau here; a simple dose of character development would suffice. Instead, we get Belushi bullying his way through another shallow role, leaving Shakur to color the film with his own shades of ambiguity. It’s not that one part was written better than the other, but Shakur manages to exude the same vulnerable air of mystery that always made him such a challenging public persona. Part average Joe trying to get by, part powder keg ready to blow, he commands the screen whenever he appears.

“Gang Related” could have gone the risky route and played up the dark humor for more than a few minutes at a time; the film’s best moments zoom in on the misguided confidence of crooks trapped in a corner, angling to get out. But the film ultimately disintegrates into pure stock, simmering with all the usual conventions and tricks. By the time it clunks to a halt, and a dedication to Shakur appears on screen, it’s tough not to ponder what could have been.

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “Gang Related”

Location: East Sprague, North Division, Showboat Cinemas

Credits: Directed and written by Jim Kouf; starring James Belushi, Tupac Shakur, Lela Rochon, Dennis Quaid, James Earl Jones, David Paymer

Running time: 1:51

Rating: R

2. Other views

Here’s what other critics say about “Gang Related:”

Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: “Gang Related” isn’t much of a swan song for the late Tupac Shakur. Given its cast, it could have been a contender if its makers had sat themselves down and decided what kind of film they wanted it to be comedy or brutal melodrama.

Jay Boyar/The Orlando Sentinel: Like its fallen star, “Gang Related” may not be perfect. But there’s a lot going on here, just beneath the surface.

Terry Lawson/Detroit Free Press: For almost half of “Gang Related,” it looks as if someone may have accomplished the unimaginable: Made a good movie starring Jim Belushi.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Gang Related” Location: East Sprague, North Division, Showboat Cinemas Credits: Directed and written by Jim Kouf; starring James Belushi, Tupac Shakur, Lela Rochon, Dennis Quaid, James Earl Jones, David Paymer Running time: 1:51 Rating: R

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Gang Related:” Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: “Gang Related” isn’t much of a swan song for the late Tupac Shakur. Given its cast, it could have been a contender if its makers had sat themselves down and decided what kind of film they wanted it to be comedy or brutal melodrama. Jay Boyar/The Orlando Sentinel: Like its fallen star, “Gang Related” may not be perfect. But there’s a lot going on here, just beneath the surface. Terry Lawson/Detroit Free Press: For almost half of “Gang Related,” it looks as if someone may have accomplished the unimaginable: Made a good movie starring Jim Belushi.


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