Eminem and director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”) may have seemed an odd couple. But three years ago Hanson’s “8 Mile,” loosely based on Eminem’s life, turned out to be that rare hip-hop movie with crossover appeal.
Jim Sheridan, the Irish director of “In America,” has now taken a similar route with “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” which is based on the life of its star, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. The results this time are much less satisfying.
Whereas the Eminem movie emphasized the star’s music and charismatic qualities, “Get Rich” is more gangsta epic than gangsta rap. Indeed, it’s one of the most violent movies of the year, beginning with a bloody recreation of the most infamous episode in Jackson’s life.
At 24, he was shot nine times at close range. The character may be named Marcus in the movie, and Jackson may claim that the picture is “a story that has incidents similar to some that happened in my life,” but it’s so close to the facts that it often resembles a docudrama in which Jackson essentially plays himself.
Much of the rest of “Get Rich” is a flashback, with Marc John Jefferies convincingly playing the young Marcus, who is 12 when his drug-dealing mother is murdered in the Bronx. Adrift as a teenager, he turns to “the family business,” writes a rap song for his girlfriend Charlene (Joy Bryant), impregnates her, and ends up in prison.
After a vicious shower brawl, he bonds with a fellow prisoner, Bama (Terrence Howard), who becomes his manager when they’re freed. But there are many scores to settle, some of them involving failed father figures and a mob boss who sounds just like Marlon Brando’s whispery don in “The Godfather.”
The screenwriter, Terence Winter, won a couple of Emmys for his work on “The Sopranos.” One of the producers, Jimmy Iovine, is a fan of “GoodFellas” and “The Godfather,” and it shows. “Get Rich” often plays more like a Mafia saga than a rap movie, with stabbings, shootings, reprisals, torture sessions and casual street executions taking up much of the running time.
Unfortunately, it’s next to impossible to care about who’s getting hurt — or to understand why these gangs seem so determined to self-destruct. The one-note characters are barely introduced before they’re garrotting each other. When they’re dead or paralyzed or recovering from their skirmishes, they don’t gain in interest or depth.
It’s left to the actors, and Sheridan’s handling of them, to keep the movie afloat for a couple of hours. Howard, who made such a strong impression earlier this year in “Crash” and “Hustle & Flow,” comes off best, suggesting Bama’s affection for Marcus as well as his sinister, self-pitying side (he’s still smarting from childhood taunts about his light skin). Too bad he’s off-screen more than he’s on.
Bryant is effective even if Charlene never does anything unexpected, while Viola Davis makes the most of her small part as Marcus’ grandmother. Jackson has an easy smile, which helps to make Marcus’ brutality genuinely shocking, but his inexperience as an actor comes through loud and clear. He’s most dynamic when he’s singing, and the movie doesn’t really let him do that until the finale.