Nothing encapsulates "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " better than the notorious billboard image of star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson with a gun in one hand and a microphone in the other. It was a bad idea to promote that likeness near schools, but it certainly tells you everything you need to know about the film it advertises.
More inspired by than closely following hard-core rapper Jackson's chaotic life from drug dealer to music superstar, "Get Rich" is a motion picture with one foot in artistic expression and one in pulp fiction and commercialized violence. It wants the respect that goes with a quality production, but it can't resist providing the brutality and exploitation the film's core audience expects. But giving in to its bad side, though likely a shrewd box-office move, robs the film of some of its power and effectiveness.
That "Get Rich" has our sympathy for as long as it does is due largely to Irish director Jim Sheridan. Best known for Oscar-nominated movies such as "My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father" and "In America," Sheridan may have seemed like an unlikely choice for this ghetto melodrama, but he wasn't.
For one thing, Sheridan happens to be a longtime rap fan. More important, the underclass dynamic of America's inner cities is not that far removed from the bleak experience of Catholics in Northern Ireland that is Sheridan's comfort zone. As the director told The Times' Geoff Boucher, "Trouble is the same, despair is the same and violence is the same." Not dazzled by rap mythology, Sheridan is more in sympathy with than in awe of this story's events.
Efficiently written by Terence Winter, an Emmy winner for his work on "The Sopranos," "Get Rich" starts with the most famous incident in Jackson's life: getting shot nine times but living to tell the tale.
As he lies wounded in the streets of Queens, N.Y., protagonist Marcus (Jackson) says in voice-over that he half expects the father he never knew to rescue him.
"I've been looking for him all my life," he says, setting up the film's metaphorical framework. "This is my search."
"Get Rich" is so determined to make us understand the childhood that molded the man that it flashes back to 15 or 20 minutes of it, with Marc John Jeffries as young Marcus, a boy who idolizes his gorgeous drug-dealing mother (Serena Reeder) only to be crushed when she is murdered.
By the time Jackson takes over the role, Marcus may love rap, but he is also so into the thug life that he's happy to say, "I'm a gangster, Grandpa, and proud of it." Following his mother into the drug-dealing business, which soon moves from cocaine to the more lucrative crack, Marcus becomes a rising criminal star dreaming the American dream of money and success.
This is the seen-it-before stuff of 1930s gangster movies turned inside out, with the gangster not the charismatic villain but the good guy who triumphs at the end. A lot of "Get Rich's" situations and lines, like "I had it all but still something was missing," are awfully shopworn, but Sheridan's direction concentrates on teasing the reality out of the overly familiar.
A director very much at ease with emotion, Sheridan helps elicit fine performances from a number of "Get Rich's" actors. Terrence Howard is as seductively charismatic as ever as Marcus' confederate Bama, Bill Duke is appropriately unnerving as the godfather Levar and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of HBO's "Oz" holds our interest from beginning to end as Marcus' boss and criminal role model Majestic.
Sheridan also does well with quietly charismatic first-time actor Jackson, who is predictably comfortable playing this screen version of himself. As opposed to his hard-nosed musical image, Jackson plays Marcus as a basically sweet guy who lets the audience know immediately, via a wink to a young boy in trouble, that he is not the villain circumstances have made him seem.
This delicate balancing act between dramatic realism and overworked genre material works fairly well for a time. Its first sign of faltering is in Marcus' relationship with his girlfriend, Charlene (nicely played by Joy Bryant). It's never completely clear why Charlene easily and unapologetically accepts Marcus' ultra-violent lifestyle, and she so earnestly stands by him it is hard to accept her as other than a plot construct.
Past a certain point, the brutality that is an essential part of "Get Rich's" story overstays its welcome. The cycle of violence repeats itself so many times, with endlessly repetitive shootings and stabbings, not to mention shots of hot women in various stages of exposure, that the film's inability to resist the lure of maximum exploitation becomes frustrating.