As with The Crow a few years back, a grim, real-life shadow hangs over Gridlock'd that's hard to ignore while watching it. Both films are swan songs for stars who died too young and left beautiful corpses: Brandon Lee in the former, and Tupac Shakur in the latter (although Shakur made one more film, as yet unreleased, called Gang Related). The circumstances of these deaths weren't similar--the Amerasian Lee died in an accident on the set, while the black rapper-actor Shakur was murdered last year in Las Vegas--but both films draw an extra buzz of morbid power from the audience's awareness of what was coming for these young men just after this footage was shot.
And both films--unintentionally, one assumes--lend themselves to this morbidity. The Crow was postmortem glam, with Lee, masked in clown white, as a supernatural avenger, while Gridlock'd, a scroungy, engaging buddy picture, shows us Shakur looking at a comatose woman in a hospital bed and wondering aloud if his luck has run out.
Shakur plays "Spoon"; Tim Roth is Spoon's friend and roommate "Stretch." They're Detroit jazz musicians and junkies. The vocalist of their combo, and sometime sort-of-lover of both men, is the lovely Cookie (Thandie Newton of Flirting and Jefferson in Paris). Right at midnight on New Year's, they notice that Cookie is OD-ing and, unable to get an ambulance, carry her to the hospital. Disturbed by her plight, the pair make it their New Year's resolution to kick, but soon see that it isn't so easy. They spend New Year's Day--or perhaps the day after, since nothing seems to be closed--getting the run-around from one social services office to another, trying to get themselves admitted to a detox program.
Stretch and Spoon's misadventures eventually lead the cops to suspect them, wrongly, of murder, and Gridlock'd turns into a comic-chase thriller, with an oddly bureaucratic source of suspense: Will our heroes elude both the cops and the bad guys and find a detox bed before the end of office hours?
The film makes its point--that the gridlock of society can paralyze even the best of intentions--early and well, and it doesn't really have anywhere to go from there. But at least it doesn't go sentimental and whiny, like the similarly themed Falling Down, which seemed to want us to find profound tragedy in the hero's inability to get a fast-food breakfast after 10 in the morning. In Gridlock'd, we aren't asked to forget that the desk jockeys, even the officious and caricatured ones, are as trapped as the people they're servicing, and that Stretch and Spoon are shiftless junkies good for not much at all. They're aware of it themselves, and this makes them likable.
Gridlock'd was written and directed by the actor Vondie Curtis-Hall--he played the Prince in William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, and he plays the mysterious bad guy in this film. His dialogue has Tarantino-y lowlife wit, and he paces the film crisply, clocking it in at 91 minutes. It's quite a confident and amusing piece of filmmaking, although it would be of no great distinction if not for the acting of the leads.
Shakur showed much promise in his brief film career, and this departure from his badass roles expanded that promise. Spoon is a sensible, soft-spoken, handsome fellow with no apparent violent impulses. He doesn't carry a gun, and toward the end of the film Hall seems to mock Shakur's image by giving Spoon no more formidable a weapon than a pocketknife to wield, and that only so that his friend can stab him with it--they're trying to get themselves admitted to the hospital.
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This scene--Roth's attempt to break Shakur's skin--is the funniest in the film, but there's also a macabre poignancy in seeing Shakur (whose earlier gunshot scars are visible when he's shirtless) probing his own torso, trying to figure out where his vital organs are.
Roth, who's actually billed as the star, plays jester to Shakur's wistful doomed prince, and has a great deal of charm. It's hard to guess how broad this film's appeal will be, since it's too satirical, and too free of power fantasies, to be classed as a "gangsta" picture, and it's on the gritty and subtle side as comedies go. But (like Shakur's recordings) it may have some attraction for the middle-class white-boy audience, because of Roth's character--a white guy so accepted in a black-hipster circle that he isn't afraid to use the N-word there, and who has a full-fledged homeboy as his inseparable friend. It's the suburban wanna-be's dream.
Directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall; with Tim Roth, Tupac Shakur and Thandie Newton.