50 Cent, aka Curtis “Mumbles” Jackson, is not a rapper. I mean technically you might think he was one because he’s released rap albums. Pretty popular, too – the one this movie’s named after went six times platinum. But in a profile in Forbes magazine he talked about his albums and all his other products (a record label with all his buddies on it, a line of clothes, a line of Reebok sneakers, a flavor of VitaminWater, a video game, a ghost-written autobiography) as a continuation of the drug dealing he did starting at the age of 11. Just another hustle, another product.
When I read about his deal with Apple to sponsor a line of low-cost computers aimed at the inner city, I wondered if maybe he was smarter than he was letting on in all his music and interviews. Had he used his fame to give back to the community, strategically getting Apple to help the poor catch up technologically with the rest of American society and build a better future? Maybe, but he never mentions anything like that in the article. It ends with the quote, “I never got into it for the music. I got into it for the business.”
I wonder how it would go over if he put a sticker on the front of all his albums explaining that. “Dear consumer, I don’t give a shit about music, I don’t give a shit about hip hop, please buy my product because I want to be even richer. That is my whole thing, being rich. Thanks for your help in this important cause. I also own part of VitaminWater.”
Of course, coming up from the ghetto is a common theme in hip hop, and this movie does an okay job of explaining why growing up poor in a family of criminals could make you obsess over money. The movie tries to recreate the 8 MILE formula (acclaimed director [Jim Sheridan this time] + semi-autobiographical tale of Detroit rapper = surprisingly good movie, they hope). It actually starts out as a pretty decent crime movie, starting with 50 – playing an alternate universe version of himself named Marcus aka Little Caesar – and Terence D. Howard falling out during a robbery. Then Marcus gets shot and his life flashes before him in the form of him narrating his life story.
The actor playing young Marcus is a good likeness and a better actor than 50. He also has the exact same level of rapping talent (not much) and there are some cute scenes where he sits in his room with a little microphone and tape recorder making sex raps, talking about things he doesn’t really understand. His mom is a drug dealer and he likes that because she buys him nice shoes. When his mom is murdered and he has to go live in a crowded house with his grandparents it’s very upsetting to him because 1) his mom was murdered and 2) he has to wear old shoes. In fact he has to wear beat up old hand-me-downs with a hole in the sole (I’m not sure why he can’t just keep wearing the ones he has.) There’s a scene where he stares in a window at some $30 sneakers he can’t afford and this is offered as the explanation for why he starts selling coke on the corner.
After a while of course they have one of those CONAN THE BARBARIAN style transitions from child to man and we get 2005 50 Cent playing mid-to-late ’90s Marcus, leading a small crew working for Bill Duke. I was happy for Bill Duke because he got to play a drug lord instead of a commanding officer and because he got to do a froggy voice, which might have been fun for him, I don’t know.
There’s dialogue in the movie about how Marcus keeps all his emotions inside, which is supposed to explain the fact that he can’t emote with his face any more than he can with his rapping. There are a couple hilariously emotionless line deliveries like when he’s laying face down in a prison shower wondering why Terence Howard saved him from getting shivved and he says, “Why.” But I’ll give it to him, he’s not that bad most of the time. He’s at least on the level of Michael Jordan in SPACE JAM as far as non-actors go, although way less charismatic. Honestly he didn’t bother me that much in the movie, definitely not as much as I was expecting. Looking at the cover of the DVD, where he holds a baby and has a completely expressionless face, I was convinced he was too bad of an actor to even pull off a still photo.
Most of the movie is competent and some of it is very well executed. But I gotta mention a couple unintentionally funny parts. I couldn’t get over the narrated line, “We were dedicated to one thing and one thing only: gettin paid, and gettin laid.” Dude, that’s two things. Couldn’t you just say, “We were dedicated to two things: gettin paid, and gettin laid?” I am not good at math but I felt that was a glaring error.
The most ridiculous error though is in the subject of history. When the movie skips forward to adulthood, Marcus narrates that everybody wanted to be a rapper after Tupac, and if Tupac wasn’t already dead then his cousin’s rapping would’ve killed him. A while later in the movie, he realizes that the cocaine business, if you calculate how much time you spend waiting on a corner and in prison, adds up to less than minimum wage. BUT THEN! A revolution hits the cocaine trade and changes their fortunes. They find out about crack and even get a cooking show style demonstration of its creation.
I can think of many different ways to interpret this but none of them make any sense. Tupac died in 1996, so this seems to be saying that crack was invented in the late ’90s. I thought maybe it was an alternate history type deal, like that old TV show SLIDERS, where the ’80s crack epidemic never happened. But there’s another scene where Marcus’s girlfriend is watching a documentary about the Iran-Contra scandal (shorthand for “this movie has depth and substance”) so I think the ’80s did happen. Let’s be forgiving and say that the “after Tupac” just means after his popularity and the narration about him dying was looking into the future. Tupac’s first solo album came out in 1991. So maybe it’s saying that crack already existed but somehow the backwards coke dealers of Detroit never found out about it until, say, 1992.
I mean come on man, I understand changing history around for dramatic purposes but however you slice this timeline it seems like kind of an insult to the intelligence of the audience. Oh well. I’ll live. I’m not gonna try to start a feud or “beef” with the movie like 50 Cent would do with a rapper that insulted him.
There are some good touches in the movie. Marcus thinks the “Rick James lookin motherfucker” he once saw his mom fighting with is the one who killed her, so for years he has a picture of Rick James hanging on his wall. There’s a really original prison shower fight scene with a bunch of dudes sliding all over the place instead of the usual carefully choreographed stuff. The scene where Marcus is in solitary and ends up carving lyrics into the wall is pretty cool (although you don’t really get to read the lyrics so who knows if they’re good or not). My favorite scene from a filmatic standpoint is when a rival rapper named Dangerous is in the studio and gangsters storm in and kill his entourage. We see the attack from Dangerous’s point of view inside the booth, gunshots muffled by the soundproof windows. And we see him just sitting there like a deer in headlights as this all goes down. This is a great non-verbal way of showing that despite his gang affiliation, his image and his lyrics, Dangerous is not “real” when it comes down to it.
But then Marcus has to make that same point verbally and unfortunately he’s not as good of a rapper as Jim Sheridan is a director. His lyrical takedown of Dangerous is a less clever rehash of the way Eminem’s character took down his rival in 8 MILE, by attacking the lack of “real” in the guy’s background. The movie gives a convincing argument for why 50 Cent is more “real” than other rappers but the problem is, it doesn’t convince me that he’s a good rapper.
Okay, I’m no expert, and if people like listening to 50 Cent’s music I can’t argue with that. But let’s just say that I don’t get it. I get why people like Biggie Smalls – he told these amazing stories full of details and images, he played cleverly with words and he had a great rhythm or “flow.” I get why people like Tupac – he had so much charisma and these interesting contradictions, contrasting ignorant sexist lyrics with emotional odes to his mama, the Black Panther. It’s like the juxtaposition of the “Thug Life” tattoo on his belly and the big, sad looking feminine eyes on his face. DMX has kind of a similar appeal, he’s this tough guy barking about dogs and Hell and then he gets emotional and prays and cries on stage. I get the appeal of alot of these so called gangster rappers, going back to Ice-T and Ice Cube, I’m not even gonna play that “but there are so many positive rappers, didn’t you see DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY” card. There are all kinds of talented people just in this one subgenre of rap music. But I still can’t understand how 50 rose to the top, even after he made a whole movie explaining it.
Well, except that he got shot 9 times. (or shot at 9 times and hit 3 times, depending on who’s telling the tale.) I never knew that he got shot in the face and has a piece of shrapnel in his tongue, and that’s why his microphone skills are so bad. In the movie he has his jaw wired shut for a while and when he starts rapping again he’s worried because he’s slurring his words, and for a second I started feeling bad about all the times I thought he was a terrible rapper. I started to think maybe it was like making fun of that guy in Def Leppard for having one arm. This guy got shot in the face so the fact that he can sort of pronounce some words, even if it sounds bad, means he’s courageous, like a special olympics type of deal.
But come on man, if a guy tried to play basketball with one leg they wouldn’t put him in the NBA unless he could pull it off. I think you’re supposed to like this amateurish marble mouth flow, not just feel sorry for him and pat him on the head. I don’t get it.
The movie really falls apart when it catches up to the opening robbery scene. Since the movie opens with Terence Howard going too far (he shoots innocent people) and Marcus standing up to him (he points a gun at him, forcing him to stop the robbery for an emotional speech about their relationship) we assume that this is what the movie is about, the rift between these two friends. And you assume that the guy who shot Marcus is either Terence Howard or somebody he hired. But it’s not, and in fact that opening scene isn’t important at all. After he gets shot Terence Howard is his best buddy again and none of that is ever mentioned again. And the shooting had nothing to do with the robbery either. I really don’t get why the robbery is important at all.
The shooting is important though, because after that 1) his voice supposedly has “more pain in it” (i.e. the dude cannot fucking rap) and 2) he decides to leave crime and focus on his rap career. This doesn’t seem like a change in his morals or anything, it just seems kind of arbitrary. He’s not Malcolm X starting out as a thug and evolving into a prophet. He’s not Scarface getting to the top and dying. He’s just a dude who sells drugs and then raps. “Get Rich Or Die Tryin'” is not an ironic title, he really means that. And the worst part is that he doesn’t even do much with his riches. He buys a car early on, which impresses the guy he gives his demo to (the incident was based on how he got his demo tape to Run DMC’s iconic DJ Jam Master Jay, who later was murdered possibly due to his association with 50 Cent. Thanks alot, asshole). And he buys shoes. He doesn’t get a big awesome mansion with a globe and a giant pile of cocaine like Scarface. I mean obviously in SCARFACE, the movie knows that you shouldn’t be like Scarface. But at least you can recognize that he’s having fun with all this excess. 50 Cent is sincerely telling you that you should waste your life doing stupid shit to get money, and then he doesn’t even bother to do anything fun with his money. He’s fuckin Ebenezer Scrooge or one of those nerds who buys collectable action figure dolls on ebay and keeps them in the package so they’re more valuable. Not cool.
What I’m saying is, this movie is completely empty, because 50 Cent is completely empty. In the scene where Marcus becomes an adult we see that he has a Public Enemy poster in his room, which is supposed to represent that during the period of time skipped over in the movie the guy has, like, thought about things before, or something. But I don’t buy it. Do you honestly believe that 50 Cent grew up listening to songs talking about J. Edgar Hoover, Cointelpro, Elijah Muhammed? Do you think he even knows what those words mean? Before you answer let me give you a couple quotes:
50 thinks the president is “incredible … a gangsta.” “I wanna meet George Bush, just shake his hand and tell him how much of me I see in him,” 50 told GQ. If the rapper’s felony conviction didn’t prevent him from voting, 50 said he would have voted for Bush.
Okay, so the guy is a fuckin moron idiot who shouldn’t be allowed to even use the word ‘rebel’ if it’s the answer to his morning crossword puzzle. But maybe after Hurricane Katrina, seeing all those black people stuck on rooftops, maybe then he saw the light, started to think maybe this “incredible gangsta” is bad for the neighborhood? Nope.
“The New Orleans disaster was meant to happen. It was an act of God… I think people responded to it the best way they can… What Kanye West was saying, I don’t know where that came from.”
That’s right 50, God wanted that shit to happen. He calls it PUSH YOUR SICK ELDERLY FATHER IN A WHEELCHAIR THROUGH SIX FEET OF POISON WATER OR DIE TRYIN’. I’m sorry Jim Sheridan, but I’m not buyin it. This motherfucker did not grow up listening to Public Enemy. They didn’t have instrumental albums back then. This guy is a fucking idiot. I don’t think you’re supposed to say that about a somewhat respected artist who is a grown adult, but a guy who says he likes Bush because he’s a “gangsta” is a fuckin grade-A dipshit. There is no getting around it, the guy is very, very, very fucking dumb. Any of you kids who think 50 Cent is cool, you’re wasting your time. Go to a veteran’s hospital, I’m sure you could find plenty of dudes who have been shot 9 or more times as well as been blown up. And some of these guys might like Bush too but I guarantee you they will have something more intelligent to say about it than “incredible… a gangsta.”
It pisses me off that a guy like that, a guy who is as stupid as fucking Paris Hilton, can be treated as a serious artist with something to say. Okay so maybe he didn’t have to go to the hospital because he got bit by an exotic animal while partying at 4 am. And maybe he didn’t report a tiny prop dog missing and later find it stuck in his boot. But he is the male equivalent of that type of airhead. The fact that he said that retarded shit about George Bush should be scandalous in the world of hip hop. Eazy E never lived down going to a republican fundraiser, and I think he did that as a joke. Now days these retards don’t even care, they’re too busy shopping for jewelry to think about things, so I have to do it for them. And I say fuck this guy.
Near the end of the movie Marcus/50 has a song called “Window Shopper” that accuses somebody else of “window shopping” by being jealous of his material items that he has purchased using drug money. You feel a little bit proud of him because the rapping and singing are improved from all the other horrible performances throughout the movie. You kind of want to give him a gold star for his sticker chart. But I’m not so sure about the content of the song because remember I mentioned at the beginning of the movie there is actually a scene where young Marcus is literally window shopping, looking at the sneakers he can’t afford anymore now that his drug dealer mom is dead. So now I guess grown up Marcus is mad at young people for being jealous of him for actually having the shoes now. Why can’t they stop window shopping and sell some drugs in order to buy fancy shoes and cars and then almost die and become a rapper so they’re redeemed like he did?
The problem is I don’t sense any irony or awareness at all in 50 Cent. I don’t think he knows. He really does believe that you need to Get Rich or Die Tryin. I mean, what else would you do, be poor and be a dancer like his girlfriend would’ve been if they didn’t meet up again? No, it’s better to be rich and get shot in the ass a bunch of times. I think alot of rappers don’t get enough credit for the substance and the art behind their songs, but as far as I can tell 50 Cent is not one of those rappers. It’s fitting that in the movie a near-death Avid-fart montage not only shows flashbacks to his life, but quick shots of the MTV logo and a Big Mac. That about sums it up.
I’m nobody to be lecturing today’s generation of rappers about materialism and stupidity. But I am one to quote somebody else doing it. Ice Cube has a song called “Child Support” that’s on his most recent album Laugh Now, Cry Later:
“All y’all rappers should kiss and make up / Take your bullshit jewelry back to Jacob / Get your mind right nigga and start to wake up / Cause the whole rap industry needs a shake up / You got million dollar niggaz killin’ million dollar niggaz / Bustin’ outta Bentleys, wearin’ chinchillas / There you go again rollin’ in your limo / Comin’ from the Grammies, shootin out the window / I know the scripture, but there’s something wrong with this picture / What you mad about, diamonds all in your mouth? / No car, no niggaz house paid off / I never heard of a rapper gettin’ laid off…”
I don’t know if Cube would include 50 Cent in the anonymous group of rappers he’s addressing there, but the shoe sure fits. Here’s this millionaire businessman who owns a share of the VitaminWater company getting in more feuds with other rappers than wrestlers do with other wrestlers. What is he so mad about? Not Katrina, not Bush, not poverty.
If GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ was a story of redemption it might be good. Or of it was the dark tale of an amoral bastard who also happens to be an artistic genius. Or if it showed the humanity of a criminal, made you understand that he’s a human being and there’s more to him than you realized. Or if he gets too big for his britches and done in by hubris. But none of those are true. Nice try on Jim Sheridan’s part, but this movie is phony. If you’re gonna base a serious movie around a rapper’s life you better find a rapper with a brain and a soul.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.