20 September 2008

Gang Related

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, then you know that I have a "thing" for Tupac Shakur and decided to watch all of his movies (you may recall my posts on Poetic Justice and Bullet). Gang Related was his final film, and is in many ways similar to the others. Most of his movies can be seen as investigations of evil; how people struggle to do the right thing, with a particular interest in the way their past or their milieu plays in this struggle. Gang Related is perhaps somewhat notable for the fact that 2Pac plays a cop, which apparently some people found ironic, given that he'd been arrested a number of times even in the year preceding the making of this film. But it's not really that strange: 2Pac was always interested, I think, in the blurring of the lines between good and evil, and recognized the law and its officers as occupying an ambiguous position in that dichotomy. Particularly in the case of crooked cops, one of whom he plays in this film.

Gang Related is kind of great because it paints its moral dilemmas with a broad brush. Tupac and his partner are cops whose preferred method seems to be sussing out drug dealers by selling them drugs, then killing them and taking their drugs back. It's not exactly subtle, but as Belushi puts it, hey, it's one less drug dealer on the streets. And honestly, I suspect that a good portion of Americans would agree with him on that score (Sarah Palin, for instance, recently attacked Obama by saying that "Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?"). So Tupac and James Belushi are merrily cleaning up the streets of America, until one night, they mistakenly kill an undercover DEA agent. OOOOPS. Now it's a race to cover it up quickly and in a convincing fashion. The following scenes, as they scramble to pin it on the first sleazebag they can find, are absolutely hilarious, as everyone seems to have an airtight alibi. But gradually the tone becomes slightly more somber as they settle on a drunk homeless guy as their perp. At this point, their accomplice, Belushi's stripper mistress, drops the NOT COOL GUYS. And the viewer is tempted to agree. But the film makes an interesting move from here, as the homeless guy flourishes in prison, receiving a shower, haircut, and rehab for his substance abuse. "Prison has done me a lot of good," he says. But then, the plot takes another turn, and the homeless guy is revealed to be... a goddamn saint. A rich, powerful one no less. Bwahaha. Of course he is! From here, our two heroes have one of two choices: to rush headlong into moral abyss, or to shape up and do the right thing. Belushi rather blandly picks the first. Tupac struggles with the second, hampered by the fact that he's got a few skeletons in his closet himself. And so the film works its way to its bracingly matter-of-fact ending. 

Yeah, ok, it's not exactly mind-blowing. But I was really fascinated by the way the movie alternated between exaggerated humor and a rather nuanced moral inquiry, without ever getting really heavy-handed or didactic. It was a surprisingly compelling story, and rang a serious note from time to time, but was also genuinely funny whenever the mood threatened to get too dark.

Tupac, although he's one of the more interesting characters in the film, is quite subdued. It's a performance rendered more poignant by his untimely death soon thereafter, but honestly, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that you can really see how much he's matured as an actor, and how much potential he had. Much as I love his other movies, it must be admitted that he shines almost too much - he's so mesmerizing as to be distracting, and you can never really forget that it's him playing a part. In this movie, on the other hand, he finds a way to contain his magnetic charisma and slip fully into the role. One wishes that someone more interesting that Belushi were taking center stage, but in any case, it's a testament to Pac's acting abilities that he manages to stay in the background. The man was a genius. 

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