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Stuck in the System

Nicola Goode

Breaking the Habit: The late Tupac Shakur plays a junkie trying to go straight in "Gridlock'd."

Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth sober up

By Richard von Busack

IN NEWCOMER Vondie Curtis Hall's Gridlock'd, Detroit musicians and junkies Spoon (the late Tupac Shakur) and Stretch (Tim Roth) make a decision to quit heroin when their good friend Cookie (Thandie Newton) overdoses on New Year's Eve. Having never tried to sober up before, they find out how thoroughly understaffed and indifferent the public health system is. Shakur gives a clear, honest performance in a sometimes ridiculous script; Roth, showing off his knowledge of ebonics, reminded me of how Sammy Davis Jr.'s blackness would be joked around with in a Rat Pack movie.

Gridlock'd often resembles a heroin version of Richard Donner's Salt and Pepper, especially in the way Cookie functions as Shirley MacLaine used to--to prove her dear male friends more obviously straight. In flashback, Cookie offers herself to Spoon and Stretch simultaneously--Stretch turns her down, saying, "I can't get it up in a crowd, baby." Equally stupid are the scenes in which Cookie performs some free-form jazz poetry while Spoon twangs on a bass and Stretch doodles on piano ("Caged souls die / black tongues cry / behind walls of ignorance").

Still, Gridlock'd has its points. Director/writer Hall ought to quit writing but keep directing. Hall's loose (most newer directors are wound too tightly) style allows his actors room to maneuver. Considering Howard Hesseman's history as a member of the improv troop the Committee, I imagine that the actor's powerful bit as a demented veteran was made up on the spot. Also, I expect that Spoon's story of his first time on heroin is a riff Shakur came up with on his own. The look of urban clinics and welfare offices, the views of people who wait in them for help and the scenes of the social workers--not all of them are demons--are very convincing indeed. A short scene of a filthy skid-row sandwich shop is as well-observed in detail as an Ed Kienholz diorama, and Hall lingers over the sick, evocative joke of the place. All you can do is shake your head that pieces this smart are in the same movie with so much dead space, exploitation-flick posturing and dumb-ass lines like "I can't get it up in a crowd, baby."

Gridlock'd (R; 91 min.), directed and written by Vondie Curtis Hall, photography by Bill Pope and starring Tim Roth and Tupac Shakur.

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From the January 30-February 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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