ICYMI: Gang Related (1997)
When Tupac Shakur’s life was cut short in 1996, not only did he leave behind a growing impact on the world of rap and hip-hop music but also “what ifs” regarding his developing acting career. Although he only appeared in a handful of films, he left the cinematic world wanting for more. From Juice to Poetic Justice to Above the Rim to Gridlock’d, Tupac Shakur displayed a natural charisma and was effortlessly authentic whether he was a romantic lead or a devious villain. His last screen performance in 1997’s Gang Related certainly added to his impressive yet fleeting movie career.
From writer-director Jim Kouf (screenwriter of Stakeout and The Hidden) comes this gritty and timely thriller concerning police corruption, murder and a labyrinthian search for justice. Shakur stars opposite Jim Belushi (in one of his best roles) as a pair of shameless, dirty cops. Their M.O. is to rob and murder drug dealers, as a shortcut to cleaning up their crime infested streets and line their pockets. Belushi justifies their behavior as a reward for his mostly legitimate career, while Shakur needs the ill-gotten gains to fuel his non-stop gambling.
One morning, after a previous night’s homicidal escapades, they are visited by the DEA. Turns out, their most recent victim was an undercover agent. The pair scramble to find a patsy and escape unscathed. With the help of Belushi’s stripper-girlfriend (Lela Rochon), they find the seemingly perfect scapegoat in the form of a homeless drunk (played convincingly by Dennis Quaid). But the hole they’re digging just keeps getting deeper when it’s discovered that their “prime suspect” is actually a long-lost billionaire philanthropist who has been in hiding for almost a decade.
The rest of the film is a tense examination of the modern-day justice system while Belushi and Shakur try every trick and kick over every rock to avoid their own inevitable fates. The film is essentially a hard-boiled fable about two cops who are well beyond learning lessons or earning redemption, and will do anything to survive, even if it means turning on each other. Word has it that Belushi and Shakur had a shaky relationship behind the scenes, but that may be the fuel for the on-screen chemistry.
Despite his more known comedic background, Belushi reminds you what an intense performer he can be. His relentlessness as captured in the film is palpable. And Shakur matches him every step of the way, as an impressionable partner who may have reached the limits of what he is willing to learn and far he is willing to go. In a sense, Gang Related is a much more grounded and realistic in comparison to the overblown histrionics of Training Day.
In addition to these engaging leads, Gang Related has plenty of noteworthy turns. While Lela Rochon’s relationship with Belushi does push credibility, her angst and moral quandary are heartfelt as someone pushed too far and who wants to do the right thing. James Earl Jones brings easy gravitas to the proceedings as the high-priced family lawyer on retainer to save Quaid and embodies the only incorruptible justice in the film. And while Quaid’s character shades a little bit towards sainthood, there is quiet power in the scene when where he divulges the transgressions that led to his self-imposed purgatory.
Gang Related also works for its moments of dark humor. Watch as another criminal (a guilty criminal) on trial notices that his weapon has been swapped out. He exclaims, “That’s not mine,” not out of a sense of innocence but depraved pride. There is also an early moment when Belushi is trying to ascertain the worst scenario of their predicament to which Shakur responds, “You mean, what’s worse that what we’ve done, that can still happen?!” Jim Kouf’s screenplay aches of both the realism of police work and the accompanying jaded cynicism.
Like many artists taken too soon, Tupac Shakur’s legacy is full of both awe-inspiring talent and wonderment at what might have been. Considering that his music espoused social injustices maybe it’s fitting that his only performance as law enforcement was as a dirty cop. And in the end, the ultimate irony is that Tupac Shakur’s life was taken by the same kind of senseless urban violence that the characters of Gang Related are either trying to hide in or escape from.