A thinly veiled biopic of 50 Cent's road to gangsta rap success, Get Rich or Die Tryin' is at times a wildly successful portrait of human perseverance and at others a weakly plotted study in cinematic cliché.
The plot follows the life of Marcus (Jackson), a black man born into a cage of drugs and poverty. His mother, played austerely by the haunting Serena Reeder, is a rough and tumble drug dealer. Her illicit lifestyle pays for Marcus' sneaker addiction and blankets his nightly rapping and zoning out. When she is murdered, Marcus moves in with his grandparents and the bubble bursts. Yet with almost mythical certainty, Marcus follows in his mother's footsteps and becomes a successful drug dealer in his own right. And just like his mother, his life is always on the line.
Sure enough, after doing a stretch of time and rediscovering his talent, Marcus attempts to go legit. He raps (as Young Caesar), gets a producer named Bama (played with a wild eyed gusto by talented and seemingly ubiquitous actor, Terrence Howard), and starts to change his life around. But he finds leaving the hood isn't that easy and nine bullets go along way in proving that.
Much of Get Rich or Die Tryin' is autobiographical. Jackson's mother was murdered, he was a drug dealer (and at a very young age), he was shot 9 times and lived and he became an underground rap success long before his top 40 takeover. The main difference is that 50 Cent was signed with a record deal before he was shot. In the film, Marcus comes across as a guy with nothing to hide, a man cleaned by salvation. In reality, 50 Cent courts trouble and has a streak of near malicious defiance that posits him in a real moral grey zone.
As an actor, Jackson is stoic. That's really putting it nicely. He mumbles a lot of his lines and he's not the most expressive character (his face appears nearly Botox-ian in its rigidity), but he's got a genuine charisma and gift for timing. This is, after all, his story, and he carries the film.
Where Get Rich or Die Tryin' goes wrong is in its production. The script is hobbled frequently by throwaway aphorisms that characters randomly blurt out. In these instances, the music swells and the lighting changes, people tear up, and it's completely overbaked. Writer Terrence Winter comes from television, and his script can't seem to shake loose some of TV's worst attributes. In fact, when Get Rich or Die Tryin' works best is when no one is speaking.
Director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) has an eye for details, but he paints this film too broadly and much too cleanly. What's most obvious about the picture, and most damaging, is the fact that it's not gritty. For all the bloodshed and bullets, there is never any real danger. The film takes place in some of the seedier Burroughs of New York City and yet it always looks and feels like a Hollywood back lot. Cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas) saturates the picture, and all the depth and dirt is removed. It's more music video epic than it is urban strife. And that simply won't do for this story.
Like its filmic predecessor, Eminem's 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin' is all about hip hop culture and the struggle of an artist against all odds. 8 Mile was a smaller, more intimate picture. A picture that ran on fumes and was steeped in gritty reality. Get Rich or Die Tryin' is a bigger story, a truly epic struggle, and yet it feels slighter, it feels dramatized.
This is highlighted in sequences that should be shocking or poignant. There is a scene in prison where Marcus and Bama fight for their lives in a shower stall. The sequence has surprising full-frontal male nudity but it just doesn't distress. The audience I saw it with snickered rather than gasped. Another sequence, of Marcus fighting for his life after being gunned down, is intercut with images of his mother giving birth to him in a diner on July 4th. We're supposed to be on the edge of our seats, besieged with emotion and revealing at the significance of it all. But it just comes off as another cinematic trick, an unnecessary grand and glossy gesture.
In the end, Jackson's life story is simply too compelling to dismiss, and Get Rich or Die Tryin' is a nice showcase for it. While the film is hindered by a lack of real depth and tangible friction, it's a fine film and one that fans of hip-hop heroism should enjoy.
And get tattooed.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 9th November 2005
Box Office USA: $30.9M
Box Office Worldwide: $46.4M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: MTV Films, Paramount Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 16%
Fresh: 19 Rotten: 99
IMDB: 4.8 / 10
Director: Jim Sheridan
Screenwriter: Terrence Winter
Starring: 50 Cent as Marcus, Joy Bryant as Charlene, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Majestic, Omar Benson Miller as Keryl, Terrence Howard as Bama, Viola Davis as Grandma, Ashley Walters as Antwan, Tory Kittles as Justice, Marc John Jefferies as Young Marcus, Sullivan Walker as Grandpa, Bill Duke as Levar, Mpho Koaho as Junebug, Serena Reeder as Katrina, Russell Hornsby as Odell, Vanessa Madden as Marcus' Relative, Joseph Pierre as Uncle Deuce, Ryan Allen as Uncle Ray, Brendan Jeffers as Marcus' Relative, Anastasia Hill as Marcus' Relative, Zainab Musa as Marcus' Relative, Lawrence Bayne as Security Guard
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