First 8 Mile, then Hustle & Flow, now Get Rich or Die Tryin' -- since rap has become by now the screen's official social redeemer, can I still not like it? 50 Cents (née Curtis Jackson) is up next for irresponsible mythologizing, from album to celluloid to mine his harsh life into box-office bling, with Jim Sheridan behind the wheel, no less. The Irish director shot New York City through autobiographic eyes in his heartfelt In America, though now, a filmmaker in America, survival depends on turning out a hit (or a trick) for audiences, so why not apply this visceral anguish to a hip-hopster's vanity fantasy? Accordingly, the picture opens with ominous pounding, a vibrating rearview mirror and cocked guns as 50 Cents (rechristened "Marcus" here) and pals head out to a soon-to-be-botched heist in Queens, only for him to lie sprawled on the streets moments later, pinned down by bullets and gun barrel pressed against his cheek. "This is my search," goes the voiceover, so cue the flashback: the '80s, Rick James curls on pimps, lil' Marcus taking the coke-peddling trade from momma (Serena Reeder). Sneakers signify status in these ghettos, later traded for cars and pistols as he enters adolescence and the gangland underworld, with godfather Bill Duke rasping at the top and Adelawe Akinnuoye-Agbaje anchoring his territory, Superfly-style.
Money, power, childhood sweetheart (Joy Bryant), yet... something is missing. Too much gangsta, not enough rapper, possibly? A bust sends 50 Cents to jail, where a mandatory shower assassination attempt, in slip 'n' stab medium-shot with wangs a-flappin', introduces him to hotheaded Terrence Howard, his future manager; in solitary, a razor is dropped into his cell in hopes of heading straight to his veins, but is instead used to scratch lyrics on his wall. However, the rebirth is not clinched until we get back to the present and our hero welcomes the last of the nine bullets into his body, so that Sheridan can cross-cut, obviously but still audaciously, from 50 Cent being revived in the back of a truck to his mother giving birth to him in her diner some twenty years earlier, fireworks providing the score. From there, on to recovery, a new voice, and a new start in a decisive nightclub concert. Cash & Flow was scarcely less corrupt in its relentless quest for fame and fortune in the American Dream, but it had the superb Howard in the lead, fueling each shot with feline fire. Howard's easy authority magnetizes the camera here again, in the process exposing the star-rapper's unmodulated glumness and thinness of voice, barely a whimper next to Viola Davis' quiet roar. Sheridan's surface vividness is applied around a vacuum, so Get Rich or Die Tryin' rattles around feebly, scrambling to build a case for a millionaire rapper as an urban phoenix, cut out of the same mold as the filmmaker's calvary of Irish martyrs. All that for 50 Cents? We wuz robbed!
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang kicks off with a considerably less serious bungled New York hold-up. Cops on his tail, thief Robert Downey, Jr. stumbles into an acting interview and, still full of Method fury, aces the audition. Next thing he knows, he's in the private party of some L.A. producer, up for a police detective role. "My name is Harry, and I'll be your narrator," thus the movie's postmodern flippancy is established, Shane Black announcing his own comeback. Who? A screenwriting wunderkind in the mid-'80s following the bullseye of Lethal Weapon's mismatched-duo shtick, he's gone AWOL after his hack formula got jerked dry, by himself as much as by copycats (The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, all his credits, and enough to discredit the action genre). Homoerotic sparring, conspiracies, car chases, bulletfests -- Shane's tropes nowadays can only get by as macho parodies, so for his directorial debut he goes for hyperbolic wisecracking, nudging and winking from frame one. Each of the movie's chapters (or "days") is titled after a Raymond Chandler pulp novel, so Downey, Jr. haplessly lands in gumshoe alley right off the bat, tagging along with a queer private eye nicknamed Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) through a cheeky sea of shady gals (most notably Michelle Monaghan), dead bodies, hit men, and assorted Bad Guys.
The title is from a collection of reviews by La Pauline (if memory serves, a character phones in as "Sgt. Kael"), and if the reference is arcane, Black is already drawing laughs out of severed fingers that won't stay glued, a corpse hit by a stream of piss before being dropped off a building, and groping resulting from a spider crawling under Monaghan's bra. Hip-deep in self-referencing attitudinizing, the characters are nothing if not aware of their status as flickering images projected onto a screen: the hero freeze-frames the action for quippy commentary ("I saw Lord of the Rings, I'm not going to end this seventeen times"), though it's at least a decade too late to catch up on Tarantino. Cleverness for its own sake adds to little more than handjobs, yet Kiss Kiss Bang Bang remains, for the most part, an effervescent ride buoyed in no small amount by the agility of the actors. Indeed, the major resurrection here may be Downey, Jr.'s more than Black's -- a free-form soloist molding the space around him by using eyebrows and hands as if they were wings, speech arcs scintillatingly jittery, never clear whether he's building his tempo off the film's, or vice-versa. Kilmer's wackiness is subtler, less lunar but no less ingratiating, freed up instead of sneaked into the crevasses of rigid exercises (vide his clowning in Tombstone and The Island of Dr. Moreau for further modulation). And Monaghan, a lone bright spot in North Country, twists her lines and leggy frame to luminously goofy effect. A trio this happy makes me feel guilty for not having had half the fun they had.
Derailed is one more example of actors coming to the rescue, here Clive Owen as a married businessman whose sole straying from the path (not even consumed) spirals into Fatal Attraction grounds. He spots Jennifer Aniston (gams first) one morning in the train, and soon they're sharing drinks and he's telling her about his home life, frosty wife (Melissa George), and diabetic daughter (Addison Timlin). Scrambling for a spot for a shag, they check into a fleapit, and she's down to unbuckling his belt when scummy Vincent Cassel barrels in, gun in hand -- he knocks Owen out and rapes Aniston, but that isn't punishment enough for would-be adulterers in Hollywood, so Cassel must stick around and torment the family guy to the bitter end. Swedish director Mikael Håfström assembles this tawdry package for the new Weinstein Company as a poor schmuck's History of Violence, and the tattered relationships of the narrative can't help parallel the brothers' own nasty split from Disney. (Along the same lines, Disney's switch to computer animation with Chicken Little reflects another divorce, new toys bought to lure kids back from Pixar.) In any case, Owen, as in Closer, structures another personal triumph from a meretricious work, nuances built around a breakfast conversation or a furtive glance; an extra second taken to contemplate motel-room humping with his TV-sized co-star, then letting the dark impulses tide over with Cassel. Virility brought to thought throughout, but thinking is something trash like Derailed fastidiously dodges.
Reviewed November 17, 2005.