Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet has us thinking about films by actors turned first-time directors.
When Tupac Shakur was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip in September of 1996, hip-hop lost one of its preeminent legends, but the world of film suffered a substantial loss as well. Though Shakur wasn’t anywhere near as prolific cinematically as he was musically—he’d have to have been Rainer Werner Fassbinder to keep up that punishing pace—he made an indelible impression with his riveting, instantly iconic debut in Juice and cemented his standing as one of the most magnetic and charismatic performers of his generation with the unfortunately overlooked 1997 dark comedy Gridlock’d.
Actor Vondie Curtis-Hall—incidentally the husband of Kasi Lemmons, another gifted actor-turned-filmmaker—made his directorial debut with this quintessential actor’s showcase about a pair of heroin addicts (Shakur and Tim Roth) who decide to go into rehab after their bandmate (Thandie Newton) overdoses on her first hit of heroin. Shakur and Roth’s very noble desire to turn their lives around runs into a never-ending gauntlet of darkly comic obstacles from a Kafkaesque system that ends up irrevocably harming the very people it was designed to help. Shakur and Roth want to kick junk and better themselves, but the inhuman dictates of a petty bureaucracy makes that borderline-impossible. Hall and cinematographer Bill Pope give the film a grungy, rotted-out look and feel that finds a visual analog for the exhaustion and desperation its exquisitely wrung-out protagonists feel.
Gridlock’d makes a sick joke of a fatally flawed rehabilitation system and Roth and Shakur’s funny, tender, and true performances and lived-in chemistry give this funky vision of junkie hell its heart and soul. Gridlock’d should have marked a glorious beginning for Shakur as a versatile, powerful actor more than able to hold his own opposite a heavyweight like Roth; instead it was more of a dead end.
Availability: Currently streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.