NOT YOUR TYPICAL SHOOT 'EM UP By BILL GALLO Westword.com
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.
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 BOUND BY RED TAPE By DONNA ADCOCK LAUNCHonline
This year's Gridlock'd, by first-time director Vondie Curtis-Hall, takes a Trainspotting approach to the bureaucratic red tape encountered by Stretch (Tim Roth) and Spoon (Tupac Shakur), two jazz musicians with a nasty drug habit and a solemn vow to get clean. Ironically, the drug-addled duo is thwarted at every turn by the underpaid caseworkers in the social dis-services department of their own government. So much for rehabilitation.
It's the atypical hodgepodge of characters that really give shape to this dark comedy and transform it into an accurate portrayal of life squelched by the system--a source of angst for all mankind. Curtis-Hall, an actor in his own right, tracks a theme and style reminiscent of last year's U.K. smash hit, Trainspotting. But the unlikely pairing of Roth and Shakur demonstrates a conscious effort to cast against the expected stereotype and give this film its own legs. Shakur's good-hearted Spoon is forward-thinking and sensible, and he all too often plays baby-sitter to Roth's child-like Stretch, whose free-running mouth talks its way into--and out of--an abundance of trouble. While the characters are usually dodging revenge-seeking drug dealers and cops who've mistaken them for murderers, all they really want to do is perform with mother-figure Cookie (Thandie Newton), the feather-voiced singer in their remarkably listenable jazz trio. In a little ditty called "Life Is A Highway," writer Shakur does a respectable job of updating the spoken-word jazz style popular in the '60s, making the Gridlock'd soundtrack a worthwhile investment.
A dynamic cast of bit characters who play nicely off Roth and Shakur are sampled generously throughout Gridlock'd. A big high-five goes to the actress Tracy Vilar whose small, but loud appearance as the Screaming Woman nets a sizable comedic impression that should guarantee plenty of work in the future. Meanwhile, Howard Hessman (best known as WKRP's Dr. Johnny Fever) unleashes an unbelievably funny cameo as a blind Vietnam Vet on cane-wielding rampage.
But in the end, it's the palpable camaraderie between Roth and Shakur that makes this film both poignant and strangely comical. At one point, Stretch--whose knife-wielding skill is impaired by his own excessive bleeding--attempts to stab a willing Spoon to expedite their admission to a county hospital. It may be pathetic, but the sequence speaks volumes: Like sparrows in a hurricane, these two color-blind friends hold on to each other in a "you watch my back, and I'll watch yours" kind of friendship. It is regrettable that we will not see these two talents paired up again.
And while Gridlock'd treads much of the same terrain as Trainspotting--both films are about struggle--viewers should keep in mind their differences. While 'Spotting focused on drugs, 'Lock'd--despite its drug-heavy themes--shines its spotlight on the red-tape B.S. familiar to every American. Ticket buyers who choose to avoid Gridlock'd based on Tupac's violent image or the movie's drug theme will miss a rare opportunity to laugh at the system and join in the common struggle known as the American Way.
FROM MOVIE MAGAZINE INTERNATIONAL By Blue Velvet
Viondi Curtis Hall's "Gridlock'd" is a comedy which he wrote, directed, and co-starred. With help from an amazingly talented cast, Hall pieces together a bizarrely surreal, gritty, hip, and ironic comedy about luck and the catch 22's of kicking heroine addiction in the motor city of Detroit.
The film moves quickly. The opening shot is an aftermath of a New Year's Eve celebration in a dank brick loft. Two underground art jazz musicians try in vain to revive a third who has lapsed into a heroine induced coma. The two musicians are Stretch and Spoon. Tupak Shakur plays Stretch, a smooth bass player with a friendly calm strength. Tim Roth plays Spoon, an unpredictable hyperactive pesky keyboardist. Thandie Newton is Cookie, the band's sultry spaced- out avant-garde jazz singer and poet who is barely alive after way too much heroine.
The frailty of Cookie's condition leads Stretch to reflect that perhaps Cookie's overdose might be a sign to stop taking heroine. He replies gravely that luck is running out. He and Spoon agree that it's time to kick their habit
The pace is set. Spoon and Stretch engage on a quest to enroll into a state-run detox program. But their path is continually detoured and blocked by rules and government clerks. Exasperated Spoon and Stretch seek to score from their regular drug dealer and they land into trouble with a murderous turf lord known as D Reaper played by Director Hall. Both good and bad luck toss Spoon and Stretch into situations where fate's maneuvers become the audience's entertainment.
Director Hall spares us drawn out scenes of waiting in line but animates the government agency clerks. The film's clerks' stretch the boundaries of believability into an overdone parody and the audience is forced fed the same frustration experienced by Stretch and Spoon. Luckily, Hall's script offers entertaining escape routes with his characters maneuvering and making creative turns from the result of good and bad luck.
Tim Roth is excellent when he's being a jerk or wisecrack but his slacker doped-up couch potato scenes are just passable. Tupak Shakur carries such a pervading presence that his role could have been more challenging to accommodate his talent. Thandie Newton brilliantly crafts the nuance of an arty cool chanteuse.
In "Gridlock'd" life is a traffic jam but the film seems to say that it's the fate of bad and good luck which gives us a fresh starting point to devise survival tactics to go after what matters to us.
Copyright 1997 Blue Velvet
GRIDLOCK'D A film review by Steve Rhodes Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes RATING (0 TO ****): * 1/2 GRIDLOCK'D is a seemingly low budget film that covers the same ground as TRAINSPOTTING, but not as imaginatively. Both films are comedies about heroin addicts. Almost all critics, but not this one, loved TRAINSPOTTING. The main claim to fame for GRIDLOCK'D is that it stars the murdered rap singer Tupac Shakur. The picture is the directorial and screenwriting debut of the actor Vondie Curtis-Hall (Captain Prince in the recent ROMEO AND JULIET), who also plays the part of the major bad guy, D-Reper.
After Cookie (played by Thandie Newton who was the star of FLIRTING) has a drug overdose and appears on the verge of death, Spoon (Shakur) decides to give up drugs. He even coerces his friend Stretch (Tim Roth) to give up drugs too.
The premise of the show is a Kafkaesque tale of their inability to fight through the bureaucracy to get on Medicaid so they can get into a drug detox center. After they sell a non-existent camcorder to D-Reper, the parallel plot in the show has D-Reper and his henchman (Tom Towles) trying to kill Spoon and Stretch.
As they have trouble getting their Medicaid cards, they enjoy many a pleasurable moment shooting heroin up their arms. The show never made me believe for a minute that these guys had any intention of giving up something that sent them into such ecstasy. Spoon, for example, talks in glowing terms about "his first time" -- to shoot up that is. "It was like going back to the womb," he dreamily describes it. "It was peace."
I did believe that they were finding the government rules to be an infinite maze and government workers to be lazy and uncaring. Of course, that Stretch would scream and cuss them out probably did not motivate the clerks whose help they needed. My favorite scene in the entire film has one clerk using their own language back at them to tell them off.
Although highly derivative, many of the scenes are funny. One features a blind Vietnam vet (Howard Hesseman) with a dog named Nixon. He trashes a social services office and accidentally provides the cover for our protagonists to make a fast exit from the law.
Too much of the film is one long chase scene. At least we do get the great director and sometime actor John Sayles in a cameo role as "Cop # 1."
I liked the film better than I thought I would, but still it is not much of movie. GRIDLOCK'D runs 1:31. It is rated R for frequent hard drug usage of various forms, for violence, for lots of profanity and for nudity. I do not think the picture is appropriate for teenagers. Personally, I would have rated the film NC-17. I laughed some, but can not recommend the movie. I give it * 1/2.
GRIDLOCK'D A film review by Ben Hoffman Copyright 1997 Ben Hoffman You could have fooled me. Not being a fan of either most rock or rap music, I was bowled over by the tragi-comedy that is GRIDLOCK'd. I laughed at the absurdities I heard coming from Spoon (Tupac Shakur) and Stretch (Tim Roth). They were saying very funny things but all contained more than just a bit of the truth. "Life," sang Cookie (ThandieNewton) "is a traffic jam, " and it certainly held true for those three members of a nightclub band.
The first time I saw Thandie Newton was in the beautiful 1992 Australian coming-of-age film, FLIRTING, where she was a lovely teenaged innocent in love with a white boy. Adorable. Here, in GRIDLOCK'd, she is a spaced-out junkie. Thandie is utterly believable.
Tim Roth is a fine, versatile actor, his latest film being Woody Allen's EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU. In GRIDLOCK'd, he has a terrifically funny scene with a couple of policemen whom he latches onto because there are a couple of drug dealers who are nearby and who would like to kill him. "How do you become a policeman?" his spaced-out character asks one of the baffled cops. "I've always wanted to be a policeman," he says with his stupid grin.
Sadly, Tupac Shakur was only 25 when he was killed only a few months ago. Watching his antiocs on the screen, seeing the goodness in the man come through, one could not help but see the irony in his death.
In this film, he is the more sensible of the Stretch-Spoon duo, always rescuing his friend from the predicaments he keeps getting into. Their color-blind friendship flows so naturally.
The story that carries the film is about trying to get into a hospital when you do not have insurance; the bureaucracy, the indifference of the employees to the plight of those who must come to them for help. And all of it presented in a hilalrious, witty series of exchanges. Hey, If *I* liked this film, you are going to love it!
Directed with a sure hand by Vondie Curtis Hall.
Rating : 3 Bytes
GRIDLOCK'D A film review by James Berardinelli Copyright 1997 James Berardinelli RATING (0 to 10): 7.5 Alternative Scale: *** out of **** United States, 1997 U.S. Release Date: 1/29/97 (wide) Running Length: 1:31 MPAA Classification: R (Profanity, violence, drug use, nudity) Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Cast: Tim Roth, Tupac Shakur, Thandie Newton, Vondie Curtis Hall, Bokeem Woodbine, Howard Hesseman Director: Vondie Curtis Hall Producers: Damian Jones, Paul Webster, and Erica Huggins Screenplay: Vondie Curtis Hall Cinematography: Bill Pope Music: Stewart Copeland U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
GRIDLOCK'd is about people caught in one of life's most absurd traffic jams, and the lengths that they'll go to in order to get moving again. It's a darkly humorous, vicious satire, and, like all the best satires, it works because so much of what transpires on screen not only could happen, but does happen -- every day in every major urban area across the country. First time writer/director Vondie Curtis Hall sees the comedy in the situation and uses it to deliver a blistering attack on the social system and its attendant bureaucracy.
Who among us hasn't had to deal with needless paperwork and frustrating run-arounds? It's a universally shared affliction, and that's why Terry Gilliam's brilliant BRAZIL resonates so forcefully with viewers. GRIDLOCK'd, which approaches the same subject from a considerably different point-of-view, strikes a similar nerve. We may not be able to identify with the specific circumstances of the main characters, but we can understand their anger and dissatisfaction with a system that seems more concerned with spilled ink than spilled blood.
Spoon (Tupac Shakur) and Stretch (Tim Roth) are a '90s odd couple. Spoon is a mature, even-tempered black man; Stretch is a childish, borderline-manic white guy. Yet, even though their personalities are 180 degrees apart, they're as close as brothers. They work together, live together, get high together, and, when they decide to free themselves from drugs, they try to kick the habit together.
The occasion for this momentous decision is an overdose by Cookie (Thandie Newton), Spoon's lover and the third member of their performance art group. While she lies in a coma at a nearby hospital, Spoon and Stretch come to grips with the precariousness of their lives. "I don't want to go out like that," laments Spoon (his words eerie in retrospect, considering the fate of the actor speaking them), "Lately, I've been feeling like my luck's running out." Getting into a detox program, however, proves to be next-to-impossible. Spoon and Stretch spend one long day racing from social service locale to locale, taking blood tests, filling out forms, waiting on lines, and being chased by both cops and drug dealers -- all in a hopeless attempt to get a little help to "kick it."
All buddy movies need solid chemistry between the leads, and GRIDLOCK'd has it. Shakur and Roth (along with Newton, during the flashback scenes) have an easy rapport that comes across as real and very believable. Both actors are good, treading the fine line between grimness and absurdity. Shakur (POETIC JUSTICE), the recently-murdered, controversial rap artist, plays against type. His Spoon is calm, rational, and low-key. Roth, who has portrayed his share of head cases before, is right at home as a druggie who will do almost anything to get his blow.
The weakest aspect of GRIDLOCK'd is a rather silly subplot involving a drug dealer (Vondie Curtis Hall) who's out to recover his stolen goods from the two protagonists. This leads to several unnecessary, routine chase sequences that don't accomplish much more than to distract us from the movie's more effective elements. Fortunately, the film makers relegate this part of GRIDLOCK'd to the background, allowing us to direct most of our attention to better things.
In his first outing behind the camera, veteran actor Curtis Hall has crafted a fine motion picture. The film addresses race relations, although not in a heavy-handed or preachy way (at one point, Spoon is forced to remind Stretch, who has adopted a number of black mannerisms, that his skin is white). In a fashion not entirely unlike that of TRAINSPOTTING, it approaches the realities of drug use. And, best of all, it mercilessly tears into the United States' so-called social services system. This particular attack culminates in a wonderful rant by Stretch against government workers.
GRIDLOCK'd is refreshing because it's different. The subject matter isn't new, but the approach and tone are. For Vondie Curtis Hall, this is the promising beginning of what will hopefully be a long and fulfilling career. For Tim Roth, it's another fine performance to add to his ever-growing resume. And for Tupac Shakur, who displays genuine talent here, it's a fitting epitaph. Hopefully, GRIDLOCK'd won't get lost in the traffic jam of low-quality, mid-winter releases that surround it.
- James Berardinelli