On the basis of this fine performance, Tupac Shakur - - million-selling rap artist and sometime actor - - is going to be missed by more than just the music business. Shot dead shortly after filming was completed, Shakur had hoped that Gridlock'd would signal a turning point in his life. ""The role of Spoon is my first venture into a new philosophy"," he said. ""A new image that's not violent, sad or angry. It's just funny."" And he was right: Gridlock'd is a grim, hard-edged film, but it's also an hilarious comedy, brought to life by the relaxed, easy banter of its stars, Tupac and Brit actor Tim Roth.
Shakur is right about the new image too. His Spoon is likeable, level-headed and logical. He's the brains of the duo, in sharp contrast to Roth's Stretch, who's dysfunctional, deranged and dangerous. The on-screen chemistry is unforced throughout, the two beleaguered anti-heroes battling valiantly to free themselves from the shackles of heroin, cops, heavies and red tape, all of which stand between them and the detox they so desperately need.
The tone of the film is set in the tense yet guffawsome opening scene, in which the hapless doper duo are forced to carry Spoon's comatose English girlfriend - - the scandalously sexy Thandie Newton - - through the streets of Detroit to the nearest hospital. On arrival, a gruelling assault course of questionnaires, receptionists and queues blocks their way - - and, in an eerie prediction, Shakur's exasperated Spoon turns to Stretch and shakes his head: "Do you ever feel like your luck's running out?"
Taking Cookie's critical condition as their wake-up call, S&S decide it's time to clean up their act: they'll kick the habit by enrolling in a government rehab scheme. It's a nice idea, but it turns into a nightmarish bureaucratic maze, the duo encountering a frustrating succession of jobsworths chanting unhelpful mantras like, ""Take a number"", ""Wait your turn" and ""Come back tomorrow" (You can, however, see the welfare workers' point when one of them asks, ""After five, 10 years, you decide this is the day, and the world stops for you?"")
Things get worse when the boys' regular dealer gets murdered. Stretch unwisely pockets the rest of the stash, inviting the unwanted attentions of hood D-Reper, an exceedingly nasty piece of work played with brooding malevolence by Gridlock'd's director (and Chicago Hope regular) Vondie Curtis Hall. With the cops hunting them as key homicide suspects, their need to get into the sanctuary of rehab takes on added urgency, leading us to the best scene of the film (one that's almost unwatchable yet truly compelling). Spoon persuades the wounded Stretch to stab him in the stomach so that both of them can lie low in the local ER. A morbidly funny conversation follows: neither desperate street punk can figure out where Spoon's major organs are, which means they can`t be sure that Stretch's pocket knife won't puncture a lung or slice up a kidney. It's inspired stuff.
Gridlock'd is a strange film, pitched halfway between crime comedy and grit-strewn real life. But it works: - the powerful, well-rounded characters, hilarious dialogue and assorted foot-and-car chases make palatable what could otherwise have been a relentlessly grim undertaking. The actors are all top-notch too: Shakur's death is a loss to the thespian profession; Thandie Newton (who is fit - - in both senses - - and healthy in a series of plot-enhancing, eye-pleasing flashbacks) has delicious screen presence; and busy-bee Tim Roth turns in yet another of his convincing unhinged-but-likeable-lowlife performances. (Roth plays this sort of part a bit too often these days, perhaps because he's bloody good at it.)
The largest dollop of credit, however, must go to writer/director/actor Vondie Curtis Hall, who drew on his own grimly colourful growing-up-in-Motortown experiences to pen the script, and who makes an impressive directorial debut. Hall's dialogue is tight, witty and closely observed, and carries the film through its quieter moments without ever letting the viewers' interest wane. This is a brave, unself-consciously stylish film that deals with contemporary American issues in unusual, often wickedly amusing ways. It's a tragedy that Tupac will never see what he and his friends have achieved.