The spookiness that has seeped into first-time director Vondie Curtis Hall's surreal action comedy Gridlock'd is the kind of dramatic bonus no moviemaker hopes for. It derives from the gang murder last September of the film's 25-year-old co-star, Tupac Shakur, and it colors the entire length of this dark farce about two aimless Detroit junkies who want to kick their habits but can't get into rehab because of red tape.
The bona fide subjects of Curtis Hall's impressive debut are friendship, the follies of bureaucracy and the curse of welfare dependency. But when Shakur delivers a line like "Somehow I don't think this was my parents' dream for me," it takes on meanings it didn't have back when the cameras were rolling--and Shakur was breathing. He began his acting career at age twelve in a Harlem theater group, and his subtly shaded performances in movies like Juice, Poetic Justice and Above the Rim are starkly different from the snarling, in-your-face pose he struck as the world's most wanted gangsta rapper. Gridlock'd reveals an even more thoughtful and gifted Tupac Shakur, and it's hard to watch him without a sense of loss for what might have been.
Here Shakur plays a laid-back heroin addict named Spoon, who resolves to quit when his singer girlfriend, Cookie (Thandie Newton), nearly dies of an overdose on New Year's Eve. "All the things we talked about," Spoon muses, thinking Cookie's already checked out. "Things she wanted to do. Then she ups and dies. I don't wanna go out like that." In retrospect, it's another zinger line, another powerful reminder of what Jimmy Stewart once said about the essence of movies--that they are "pieces of time."
Onscreen though, Spoon's zoned-out running mate, Stretch (Tim Roth), isn't thinking about time or much of anything else. As explosive as Spoon is cool, Stretch is a sour junkie thief with enough nerve to believe that society owes him a living--or at least an unobstructed path into detox. No such luck. While the overheated Roth raves at bored hospital nurses and overworked Medicaid clerks and Shakur chills, Curtis Hall builds up a vision of a grimy, ossified world in which everyone in need has to stand in line, the bureaucrats don't have the right forms, and the agency you're required to visit is forever moving to a new address. When Spoon and Stretch aren't marking time in fluorescent-lit offices, they're drowsily watching TV talk shows in their scummy apartment. In short, the terror of 1984 meets the absurdity of Waiting for Godot--and they're both nodded out on smack.
Meanwhile, Curtis Hall and director of photography Bill Pope have turned this into one of the most visually inventive films of recent years: Some of their complex, arty shots may be self-conscious, but almost every one of them stays with you after it has fled the screen. Three young desperadoes crammed into a phone booth in the rain. A huge automatic pistol stuck into a guy's face. The sappy yellow light in a crowded waiting room. A nightclub bandstand perceived through a haze of drugs. Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese would be hard-pressed to come up with such vivid conceptions.
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Insofar as it has any, Gridlock'd's conclusions are usefully garbled: Curtis Hall savages the welfare state for blowing the big fuse; he sticks it to his shambling, interracial anti-heroes for presuming on social services in the first place. Spoon and Stretch take on a cartoonish, Laurel-and-Hardy quality as they find themselves pursued through the streets by a glowering drug dealer whose stash they've snatched and by the flatfooted cops, who think these two have committed a murder. All our guys really want to do, they say, is stay out of sight, lie down in a hospital and dry out. That no one will let them do it is their Catch-22. That they wind up flinging pocket knives at each other's stomachs just to get into the emergency room is the movie's most grandiose run at theater of the absurd.
In the end, Gridlock'd is not quite Trainspotting refashioned for the 'hood--not enough cold chill--and though it signals even better things for its young director, it holds up only intermittently as commentary on the sorry state of bureaucracy and junkiedom. The eerie fact we take away from it is that while Spoon is able to dodge flying bullets, sidestep the urban abyss and somehow straggle on to wherever life leads, the promising young actor who created him didn't make the cut.
Those in search of further irony will want to know that this is not Tupac Shakur's last film. There's another one in the can, unreleased as yet, called Gang Related.
Gridlock'd. Written and directed by Vondie Curtis Hall. With Tim Roth, Tupac Shakur and Thandie Newton.