2 items from 1997
Faced with an ungainly scenario in which vigilante cops go from bad to worse and involving far too many twists and surprise revelations to sustain credibility, the viewer has little interest in the fates of cold-blooded but vaguely idealistic killers in writer-director Jim Kouf's murky, overlong "Gang Related".
An MGM release of a Orion picture featuring the last film role of the late Tupac Shakur, "Gang Related" does boast rugged, fully dimensional performances from Shakur and co-star James Belushi, while Dennis Quaid, James Earl Jones and David Paymer provide much-needed backup. But the downbeat nature of the tale -- which is a slightly grittier crime drama than one can see in primetime -- has little pizazz and not much chance to hit pay dirt in the current marketplace.
Although rapper Shakur had better roles and opportunities to exercise his maturing talents as an actor, his pairing with Belushi is the most inspired aspect of "Gang Related", which takes its title from the scam that the leads use to cover up the murders of drug dealers that the big-city detectives commit to make extra cash.
With a nice girlfriend (Lela Rochon) involved in the ongoing operations against unsavory criminal types, in-debt-to-gamblers Rodriguez (Shakur) is quietly worried that perhaps he and more gung-ho Divinci (Belushi) have gone to the well once too often. He's proved to be right when they deal drugs to and then shoot up an undercover DEA agent, bringing major heat down on their shifty heads.
Kouf's grasp of the material is stronger in the first half of the movie, when such scenes as Rodriguez and Divinci investigating the crime scene in which they were the perpetrators makes one uncomfortably intrigued. But when their boss and unfriendly federal law-enforcement types get involved, it becomes a case of the detectives subverting the system to their advantage and predictably screwing up.
There are a few amusing moments as the leads look for a patsy and interrogate a number of lowlifes. But the plot goes off on a wild tangent when Divinci picks a boozed-into-oblivion tatterdemalion (Quaid) as a sure-fire suspect. Not only do the heroes have to coax the gruff homeless man into agreeing to plead guilty, but Rochon's character has a sentimental attachment to him that comes out when the case nears trial.
All does not continue to go well, as the suspect turns out to have a past, while the lawyers (Paymer, Jones) defending Quaid's character determine there's plenty of reasonable doubt.
Meanwhile, the leads stumble over each other to tamper with evidence and take necessary steps to survive, but it's hardly a challenge predicting what their fate will be.
Initially unrecognizable under impressive makeup, Quaid once again makes the most of a showy supporting role. The best work overall is Belushi's as the manic Divinci, who long ago traded in his idealism for the dream of escaping the city. Jones and Paymer check in with serviceable performances, while Rochon ("Waiting to Exhale") is typically the odd girl out and not given much to do.
All about the gray areas, where personal happiness and the laws of society collide, "Gang Related" is a bit too colorless. Filmed in widescreen by Brian J. Reynolds ("Guarding Tess" and three-plus seasons of ABC drama "NYPD Blue") but not at all memorable visually, the movie is also hurt by former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's lackluster score.
Orion Pictures presents
a Brad Krevoy & Steve Stabler production
A Jim Kouf film
Writer-director Jim Kouf
Producers Brad Krevoy, Steve Stabler,
Executive producer Lynn Bigelow-Kouf
Director of photography Brian J. Reynolds
Production designer Charles Breen
Costume designer Shari Feldman
Editor Todd Ramsay
Music Mickey Hart
Casting Carol Lewis
Divinci James Belushi
Rodriguez Tupac Shakur
Cynthia Lela Rochon
William Dennis Quaid
Arthur Baylor James Earl Jones
Elliot Goff David Paymer
Running time -- 111 minutes
MPAA rating: R
Episode five of the "Star Wars" saga (grandly designed as nine films), "The Empire Strikes Back" is unquestionably the best installment of 20th Century Fox's science fiction trilogy and arguably the crowning achievement of the fantasy-adventure genre reinvented in the 1970s and '80s by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Destined for boxoffice glory in its rerelease as part of the hugely successful "Stars Wars Trilogy Special Edition," director Irvin Kershner's 1980 sequel to Lucas' 1977 boxoffice powerhouse is beautifully crafted, intelligently scripted and holds up very well.
Indeed, there were not many missteps in its original incarnation. Although there are no major new scenes, "Empire" nonetheless benefits from minor additions and tinkering by Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic (new views of the Cloud City are breathtaking), as well as the improved and remastered soundtrack.
From one of John Williams' finest scores to Norman Reynolds' excellent production design (both were nominated for Academy Awards) to its Oscar-winning sound and special effects, "Empire" continues the "Star Wars" story with an action-packed space opera that has the far-from-invulnerable rebel heroes barely surviving several new clashes with the oppressive Empire.
A major element of "Empire" that's an improvement on "Star Wars" is the film's overall visual scheme. From the superb work of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky ("Mars Attacks!") to the more attractive costuming and hair styles, "Empire" presents a more consistently compelling and wondrous array of planets, space battles and exotic interiors, not to mention many creatures and nonhuman characters, including a lovable and useful pair of robots (Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker), the growly Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the diminutive sage Yoda (Frank Oz).
Based on Lucas' original story, the script by science-fiction writer Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan incorporates the first film's sometimes goofy characters but keeps the humor to a minimum. Hiding on Hoth, a remote and icy planet, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are a team on the verge of breaking up.
Jedi Knight-in-training Luke gets a message from the specter of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), while Han has plans to pay off his debts. Enter again merciless Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones' voice), obsessed with finding Luke. Hoth is assaulted and the trio is split up.
One terrific thrill follows another. Han and Leia in the Millennium Falcon zip through an asteroid field, Luke crashes a speeder into the snow and an X-wing fighter into the swamps of a jungle planet. The viewer is taken for quite a ride, but the characterizations and plot developments are also richly satisfying.
Lucas' cinematic universe will never be confused with the serious science fiction of the Frank Herbert/Arthur C. Clarke variety, but in "Empire" there are many imaginative elements to the action -- and the interaction of humans and technology -- that are quite sophisticated for mainstream filmmaking.
Director Kershner proved to be the perfect choice to realize the somewhat darker thrust of "Empire", with its emphasis on Luke's struggle to resist Vader and the "dark side" of the Force.
A film without the usual upbeat payoff, "Empire" instead offers the brilliantly executed fight between Vader and Luke in the Cloud City's reactor shaft. Along with the capture of Han Solo and the unexpected help of his pal Lando Calrissian Billy Dee Williams), revelations about Luke's father and hints of Leia's Jedi abilities give one plenty to chew on while waiting for next month's rerelease of "Return of the Jedi".
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
20th Century Fox
A Lucasfilm Ltd. production
Director Irvin Kershner
Producer Gary Kurtz
Executive producer George Lucas
Music John Williams
Director of photography Peter Suschitzky
Production designer Norman Reynolds
Editor Paul Hirsch
Costume designer John Mollo
Sound Ben Burtt
Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill
Han Solo Harrison Ford
Princess Leia Carrie Fisher
Lando Calrissian Billy Dee Williams
Obi-Wan Kenobi Alec Guinness
C-3PO Anthony Daniels
R2D2 Kenny Baker
Chewbacca Peter Mayhew
Darth Vader David Prowse
Running time -- 127 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
2 items from 1997
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