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'Gang Related': Tupac's Triumph

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 8, 1997

"Gang Related" has some problems, all story related; but it has no problems, performance related.

It illustrates again the tragic futility of the death of Tupac Shakur, who possessed a fragile but powerful screen charisma rare enough in any age, but particularly rare in an era of beefy supermen. It follows on his other posthumously released film, "Gridlock'd," in showing his immense potential. The irony, I suppose, is that the young man's need to be an alpha male, a "gangsta," got him killed, but his best screen identity and the persona to which his directors almost all responded and documented was of a softer, more troubled personality, a young man at the end of his tether.

That's exactly who Shakur is in Jim Kouf's "Gang Related": a conscience-haunted L.A. homicide detective named Rodriguez whose partner is Divinci, a comically brutal cop played by Jim Belushi. The two have hit on a neat scam: They set up dope dealers, sell them heroin, then murder them, keeping both heroin and money. As they see it, they are being well rewarded for acts of civic hygiene.

What sets the movie in motion is that one of their victims turns out to be not a dealer at all, but an undercover DEA agent. This leads to a useful story formulation, not new to pulp fiction, but always a lively premise: the cops in charge of catching themselves.

But Kouf, who has a gift for street-level cop shenanigans (he wrote the original "Stakeout"), has even more fun with this one. The plot continually refuses to be predictable, and the story moves smoothly from dark farce to courtroom drama to menacing melodrama to a final, Hitchcockian twist ending that leaves justice satisfied, if not the law pleased.

It's basically a problem in damage control. After Divinci and Rodriguez's initial miscalculation, each move they take to contain the problem is logical, clever and catastrophic. Things go from bad to worse to a whole lot worse, as first the DEA pressure on them to solve the case mounts; then their crooked witness is terrified when it turns out she will have to testify (a lawyer manages to bring the case to trial rather than cop out on a simple plea bargain); and finally, the selected fall guy, a homeless alcoholic, turns out to have a more complex past than they could have imagined.

What's best about "Gang Related" is the way in which, like a classic thriller, it doesn't depend on pyrotechnics, gunfights and car chases for its adrenal gooses, but rather on well-thought-out plot twists. You're reacting to the story, not to the explosion on the freeway -- and the ability to construct a story so well is a dying art in a freeway-explosion-dense film culture.

Shakur is superb, as I said, but so is Belushi. Initially a kind of glowering Bozo whose very sleaze is seductive and whose efficiency is attractive -- he's very Dirty Harry-like in his solutions to criminal problems -- he drifts off, almost banally, into the most repellent of all evils, the criminal sociopath masquerading under the flag of authority and using the system to hide his tracks. He stops being funny and merely becomes horrifying.

Other performances are equally pleasing, particularly Wendy Crewson ("Air Force One") as a tough prosecutor, David Paymer as the homeless fall guy's hopelessly idealistic lawyer, and Lela Rochon ("Waiting to Exhale") as the coerced witness.

Finally, and not to make too big a deal out of it, but in a crisp, B-movie way the film makes a nice point about law, order and society: that when in an excess of moral indignation and superiority we turn to vigilantism, chaos is never far behind.

Gang Related is rated R for violence and nudity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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