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Friday, June 16, 2006

Gangsters never learn

Get Rich or Die Tryin'

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Jim Sheridan
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 17
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Layer Cake

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 1
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In the bad-ass world of gangsta rap, the rhymes you drop don't mean jack if you ain't hardcore. If you can talk the talk, that's cool, but you also gotta walk the walk. And when it comes to street cred, few can rival Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. The hype around this hip-hop star invariably mentions the fact that he was shot, not once, but nine times, and lived to tell the tale. Can't touch that for hardcore, unless maybe you're Tupac (i.e., shot dead).

News photo
50 Cent in "Get Rich or Die Tryin'"

Every dawg has his day, and following in the footsteps of Ice-T, Ice Cube and Eminem, 50 Cent has tried to parlay his hip-hop persona into cinematic superstardom with the semiautobiographical movie, "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'."

50 Cent's film is most similar to that of his label-mate Eminem's "8 Mile," in that it tries to establish its star's impeccable street cred while also -- and somewhat incongruously -- making him look like a nice guy.

"Get Rich" starts with a botched robbery, and its aftermath sees 50 Cent getting riddled with those nine holes. At this point, we flash back to his childhood, and the film gives us everything that led up to this point. We meet Marcus (his alter-ego in the film) around age 12, when his mom's leaving him at his crowded grandparents' house, once again, so she can go off and deal dope. In the voiceover, 50 Cent tells us, "I knew my mom sold drugs, but it didn't mean nothing to me but good sneakers."

That changes quickly when mom meets a nasty end. At the funeral, Marcus wonders which, if any, of the gangsters attending might be his father. Or her killer. The absent parent issues dog him for most of the film, and are offered up as an excuse for Marcus' subsequent descent into the gangsta life.

50 Cent is plausible in a role which is supposed to be, more or less, himself, but his addiction to the glowering, bad-ass image is such that he's rarely able to emote.

The characters who keep us interested are the minor ones; Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje makes for a good friendly/scary crime lord in the Joe Pesci vein, while Terence Howard (also starring in the hip-hop flick "Hustle and Flow") oozes much more charisma as Marcus' prison buddy and manager.

Interestingly, "Get Rich" plays right into the hands of those moral critics of gangsta rap who say it glorifies crime and is a bad influence on impressionable kids. We see young Marcus making a home tape of absolutely filthy rapping -- not that he understands the words, he's just aping his idols. Later we see him go to buy a pistol; he's not even sure why he wants it, but the viewer is: It's a lifestyle accessory, a token of cool. The first thing Marcus does after getting his gun is to put on a hoody and strike poses in front of a mirror while listening to Boogie Down Production's "9 Millimeter Go Bang." One wonders whether director Jim Sheridan ("In The Name of the Father") was loading an implicit critique of his star's music into the film.

After doing time, Marcus decides to settle his scores through rhymes, not crimes. And yet, this claim of maturing enough to channel his anger through art, not violence, rings untrue. At the end of the day, it's a bullet, not a rap, that balances 50 Cent's karma. The lesson seems to be that if you're a big enough rapper, you can get somebody else to pull the trigger.

* * * * *

50 Cent, back in his dealer days, is exactly the sort of guy the protagonist of "Layer Cake" does his best to avoid. Daniel Craig ("Munich," and the new 007) plays a high-level coke dealer whose cardinal rule is: "Avoid like the f***ing plague loud, attention-seeking wannabe gangsters. They don't mean to f*** up, but they do."

News photo
Daniel Craig (below) in "Layer Cake"

"Layer Cake" is the latest installment in the British gangster revival that started with Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" in 1998. This one actually has a direct lineage, in that director Matthew Vaughn was Ritchie's producer on both that film and its followup, "Snatch."

All signs indicate that Vaughn has absorbed Ritchie's signature style whole: hardboiled dialogue; colorful, quirky, criminals; flashes of gnarly ultraviolence; a tricky, intricate plot; and a certain stylish edge to the cutting and filming.

Craig plays an anonymous dealer of cocaine who approaches his trade with a businessman's work ethic and a clear plan: Stay removed from the street-level distribution of the drug, keep your suppliers happy, and get out while you're ahead. The problem comes when his boss, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham), decides he makes too much money for everyone to be allowed to quit. Jimmy then orders him to help a gang of chavs led by the very stupid Duke (Jamie Foreman) unload a million tabs of MDMA. What nobody knows yet is that Duke jacked them from suppliers who were backed by a truly heavy Serbian mafia crew. Soon, a hit man named Dragon is leaving bodies as his calling card.

The plot offers feint after feint, double-cross and triple-cross; fans of "The Usual Suspects" will find much to enjoy here. At the end of the day, though, "Layer Cake" is basically gangsta rap for people with different sensibilities. Instead of gold chains and baseball caps, it's Armani suits and cigars. It seems, though, that a bitch is still a bitch: Supermodel Siena Miller is given a part that involves little more than sleeping her way up the criminal food chain.

In the end, what "Layer Cake" and "Get Rich" basically agree on is that the rewards of criminal life are probably not worth the bullet that awaits you. Still, the movies have been saying that since 1931's "Little Caesar" -- it's not clear anyone's actually listening.

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