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Dead Man Acting

Hollywood never realized that Tupac Shakur was always better than his movies

While Tupac Shakur lay bleeding to death inside Suge Knight's car last fall after an attack on the Las Vegas strip -- all his crack bodyguards couldn't even identify the perps' getaway car -- Death Row Records realized it was losing a franchise player. But Hollywood may never have had a clue about what it was going to miss. Shakur -- troubled history, jail time and all -- was a mess as a human being, but he was an indisputable artist.

The man would never have allowed himself to undergo the sort of cynical career makeover perpetrated recently by Courtney Love; hell, he would never have allowed himself to be caught in a movie that would remotely be considered self-important Oscar bait. But he was the real deal; like Love, he just pops off the screen. His performances always elevated whatever pulpy crap surrounded him. He was a revelation in Poetic Justice, single-handedly making that muddled, noisy tract worth seeing, and he brought life to such moribund material as Above the Rim and Juice.

What could he have done in worthy works? The question will continue to go unanswered, for although we've just been given a Tupac two-pack -- with Gridlock'd, a clear near-miss predicated on a sly, satirical idea, and Bullet, a piece of unmitigated direct-to-video junk -- film fans have yet to witness Shakur in a solidly conceived cinematic effort. He has one movie remaining to be released: Gang Related, in which he plays a tough-guy cop and co-stars with Jim Belushi in something initial publicity optimistically compares to Seven. (Does anyone else sense some incongruities there?) Still, Shakur's brief, tragic career suggests he could have been remembered in cinema history as one of the most gifted and committed players in decisively B flicks.

Gridlock'd, written and directed by Vondie Curtis Hall, an underused character actor (Passion Fish and Falling Down), is by far the more interesting of the two projects now being released. Hall's previous behind-the-camera work (he produced 112th and Central: Through the Eyes of the Children, a moving, heart-on-its-sleeve documentary of 1992's L.A. riots that somehow has been omitted from his resume) underscores his commitment to socially relevant work. Gridlock'd, however, muddles any statement he might have wanted to make.

Shakur and Tim Roth star as a pair of junkies who are inspired to clean up their acts when their mutual girlfriend (Thandie Newton) overdoses. They have to machete their way through a jungle of governmentese required by sundry social-service organizations standing between them and a healthy lifestyle -- lines and more lines must be stood in, numbers and more numbers must be called, forms and more forms must be filled out, protocol and more protocol must be adhered to. To keep things popping, and keep the audience interested, the script scribbles in evil drug lords (who kill Roth's and Shakur's suppliers and friends) and clueless cops (who think the duo are responsible for those deaths) to chase our protagonists around town.

None of this is particularly cinematic, and Hall is incapable of keeping his cleverly cynical ideas from getting bogged down in flatfooted storytelling. For example, the film opens with our antiheroes' girlfriend's overdose, but the events leading up to her death are irrelevantly played out in flashback, the sole reason for this apparently being to show Newton in various stages of undress. And Roth's and Shakur's characters are thereafter variously depicted as either too smart or too stupid to fall victim to the roadblocks that stand between them and safety. Why don't they, for example, turn in the real killers when they have the chance? This sort of question plagues much of the last half of the movie, and the film's humor is decidedly lacking -- only a scene in which Shakur prods Roth into stabbing him garners any real laughs. Still, Roth's and Shakur's performances -- they have a chemistry that makes them endearing despite the abhorrent nature of their characters -- keep this watchable, even while the narrative crumbles around them.

Nothing, however, can save the simply titled Bullet. This just-released cliche-a-thon was written by Bruce Rubenstein and Eddie Cook and directed by Julien Temple (Earth Girls Are Easy, Absolute Beginners), and it's pretty much as horrible and incoherent as you'd expect any direct-to-video movie to be. Any film that posits Mickey Rourke as a sympathetic protagonist is, at this point, genuinely screwed up. On that level, Bullet does not disappoint.

As the film opens, Bullet (Rourke) is released from prison; it takes him a good two minutes of screen time before he's breaking laws and being generally antisocial. Tank (Shakur), a drug dealer decked out in a black eye patch and a white ermine beret who rides around in his limousine supping on champagne and succulent fruit, demands Bullet's death -- a not-unreasonable request.

An hour of narrative wheel spinning later, we're getting a little closer to some semblance of closure. Shakur returns, finally, and gives this exercise a raison d'etre. The movie stumbles through some race-relations nonsense and some muddy glorification of drug use before it sputters to its nihilistic conclusion.

Rourke is his usual lovable self, a dirtbag so loathsome that the suggestion he possesses a silent nobility registers nothing more than a derisive chortle. Shakur should have been grateful -- playing against Rourke is one of the few things that could get the audience to pull for a drug-dealing character played by a convicted sex offender. The most intriguing performance here comes from Ted Levine, playing Bullet's amusingly psycho brother, who whacks off in this movie's margins to images of the Holocaust.

True to the aesthetics of any Julien Temple movie, the style-over-substance approach blurs the racial and drug issues the movie broaches. We can only lament the fact that Shakur didn't live to learn not to associate with such hack poseurs.

Gridlock'd.
Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall. With Tupac Shakur, Tim Roth, Thandie Newton and Charles Fleischer. Rated R. 92 minutes. Bullet. Directed by Julien Temple. With Tupac Shakur, Mickey Rourke and Ted Levine.

Rated R.
96 minutes.

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