It begins with a burst of energy and charisma as Marcus (rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and his friends break into a store so they can rob it. They don’t break in so much as explode in. Director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) creates an electric sense of high testosterone and tension. And then Marcus looks over at the terrified child of the store proprietors and gives him a reassuring wink.
But it’s downhill from there. Like 8 Mile, the film starring 50 Cent’s mentor, Eminem, this film has a top-level screenwriter and director adapting his life story. But it is not as successful, because, despite his unquestionable charisma and buff torso, 50 Cent is not an actor. He has attitude. But he only has one attitude. He might as well be botoxed (or still have his jaw wired shut from the bullet wound); whether he is supposed to convey sorrow, regret, fear, love, anger, or ambition, it’s all just the one facial expression.
The story isn’t much more gripping than the performance. We’ve seen it before, not just in gangtsa movies, but before that in gangster movies, Westerns, and just about any other “how I triumphed over all my obstacles” story. It’s a little bit 8 Mile (young man from poverty dreams of rapping), a little bit Goodfellas (rise and fall of a gangster), and a little bit Oliver Twist (the only father figures a poor boy can find are the local bad guys who show him attention just so they can use him).
Marcus/50 Cent never knew his father and his mother, a drug dealer, died when he was 8. He went from being the well-loved son of a mother who was not around much but showed her love by buying him “the best of everything” to being one of a large, scruffy bunch fighting for space, food, and the good pair of shoes at his grandparents’ apartment. After he gets kicked out of a bed shared by several people, his grandfather sets up a cot next to the washing machine, asking the child, “You gonna be all right here for a few years?”
So it wasn’t long before Marcus went into “the family business,” selling drugs on a street corner to buy the two things he most wanted — a fancy pair of sneakers and a gun. The message all around him is that the only thing that matters is “respect,” and the only jobs that get any respect — the only occupations with any authenticity — are gangster and rapper. Best of all is both. “After Tupac, everyone wanted to be a gangsta rapper.”
Marcus knows that on an hourly basis he is making less than minimum wage, and that the job he has taken will inevitably get him shot, put in jail, or both. But “respect is the most important thing in life” and living the thug life gets him the only kind of respect that he, well, respects. He says, “My mama didn’t raise no second-class n—–; I’m a gangsta, Grandpa, and proud of it.” He never thinks about the effect of what he is doing on his own life, the lives of the people who care about him, or his community. He wants is to run with the big dogs (he tells the kingpin, “You’re like a god to me”). And he wants to find his father, and kill the man who killed his mother, even if they might be the same person.
There are some very strong moments and some very impressive performances, especially Terrence Howard, this year’s breakout star, with another incendiary appearance. Howard conveys more with the angle of his hat or the way he exhales cigarette smoke than 50 Cent does in his most dramatic moments. The always-impressive Viola Davis is fine as the grandmother who has seen too many people she loves get shot. Joy Bryant lends some grace to the thankless role of “fantasy girlfriend,” ever loving and true-hearted, despite the fact that her boyfriend provides almost no financial or emotional support and puts not just himself but also her and her baby at risk.
Director Sheridan has a good feel for place and there are some vivid images, especially a brutal fight in a prison shower, followed by a conversation between men who happen to be lying down, cuffed, and naked. But the story is predictable (especially since it is told in flashback after Marcus is shot and we all know he survives and becomes a star). At crucial moments, it falls back into formula or, worse, a winking self-referential love letter to 50. One nemesis is a rapper named Dangerous (Michael Miller), supposed to be based on 50’s feud with Ja Rule. But 50 is more interested in dissing Ja Rule by portraying “Dangerous” as a wimpy wannabe who looks like a woeful fetus than he is by creating an arresting dynamic between the two characters. It’s not the predictability of the movie that is the problem; it is the emptiness. 50 Cent doesn’t want to rap because he has something to say (like Eminem). He just wants to rap because it’s cool. We never get a sense of his learning, growing, or giving back. 50 Cent fans would be better off with a concert film. But at least he makes his priorities clear; it’s not called “Make a Good Movie or Die Tryin’.”
Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of very intense adult material that makes it unsuitable for younger audiences or sensitive audience members of any age. Characters use extremely strong language, including the n-word. There is a great deal of peril and graphic violence, including shooting, stabbing, and punching and references to rape and suicide. Many characters are hurt and some are murdered. Most of the characters are drug dealers and many are drug users. There are sexual references and situations and sexual and non-sexual nudity, including a fight in a prison shower that includes frontal male nudity.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Marcus felt his best option for getting what he wanted was to become a “gangster,” even though he knew that on an hourly basis he was making less than minimum wage. What do you think about the priority the characters in this movie put on “respect?” How did they define what respect meant to them? Why did they believe that “love will get you killed?” Families should also talk about how much the drug business in this movie resembles any other business or, indeed, any other organization, with (literal and metaphorical) turf battles, communication issues, leadership, motivation, and vision concerns, succession planning concerns, and even research and development of new products.