A weekly check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
I used to have enormous contempt for the likes of Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, DMX, Ja Rule, Diddy, and Master P. At the height of their power and fame, they represented all that was fake and mediocre about hip-hop. But over time, I’ve come to develop a distinct appreciation for all of the above artists. Maybe it’s because time and circumstance have humbled them or revealed new gifts. Diddy, for example, may not be much of a rapper, but he’s one of rap’s all-time great hype men and a hilarious character actor in films like Made, Get Him To The Greek, and I’m Still Here, where his deadpan under-reactions to Joaquin Pheonix’s performance-art insanity generate some of the film’s biggest, most awkward laughs. For the larger-than-life hip-hop survivors listed above, familiarity has bred the opposite of contempt, at least where I’m concerned. I admire their resilience and survival (though “survival” might be too generous a word to describe where Ja Rule is at, personally and professionally, right now).
Yet 50 Cent, another once-mighty survivor who simply will not yield the spotlight to younger, more deserving artists, stubbornly refuses to become likable with time. Maybe it’s his habit of bullying other artists, then disingenuously claiming victory when they trounce him in popularity and relevance, like Kanye West and Rick Ross. Maybe it’s the vicious way he publicly humiliated and ridiculed his tragic, now-incarcerated former protégé Young Buck, who always seems on the verge of weeping uncontrollably anyway. Now that 50 Cent has seemingly burned all his bridges and alienated even his most ardent fans, he’s turned his sour disapproval to veteran flunkies Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo, his closest professional affiliates and bosom buddies. 50, Banks, and Yayo have long been the professional equivalent of conjoined twins, but now 50 is bitching to a press that still wearily tolerates him for the time being that they’re dead weight who need to leave the nest, man up, and stop relying on him to keep their faltering careers on life support.
Soon 50 will be hip-hop’s Charles Foster Kane, with a vast empire and no one to share it with, not even his loyal, longtime sidekicks. First 50 was a plucky David taking on Goliaths. Then he was a bully antagonizing peers and weaklings. Now he’s a jerky stepdad publicly bad-mouthing his helpless professional progeny. If 50’s world got any smaller, meaner, or more hermetic, he would have to turn his rage toward someone even closer to him than Banks and Yayo used to be: himself. Paradoxically, the only way 50 might be able to save his career would be by destroying it, by turning the full force of his rage on the person whose ego, arrogance, terrible decisions, and misguided priorities have nearly killed one of the most promising careers in hip hop: 50 Cent.
I would love for 50 to regain the fire and focus of his early mixtapes and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (the album, not the movie) and really lay into the complacent, deluded 50 Cent of 2012 for all of his stupid bullshit: the pathetic publicity stunts, the attention-seeking beefs, his shitty movies, stupid commercials, and Krusty The Clown-like propensity for sticking his name and image on whatever product is offering him a nice paycheck. Now that would be worth paying attention to, not the garbage that has constituted 50’s music and film career as of late.
Yet I’m still fascinated by 50 and his Norma Desmond-like ego. (In his mind, he’s still big, it’s the pictures and album sales that got small.) Fascinated enough that a few years back at Sundance, I went to a press conference just to watch him posture and mumble a few superlatives about a 10-film, $200 million deal with Lionsgate to release movies from 50’s Cheetah Vision imprint. Even the name of 50’s production company is tacky: It sounds more like a low-rent strip club than a production company. And I’ve been wearily keeping an eye on the dreck that’s been dribbling out of Cheetah Vision: the bizarre vanity project Before I Self Destruct, which he also wrote and directed, Setup, with Ryan Phillippe and a sleepwalking Bruce Willis, and most spectacularly, the unintentionally hilarious All Things Fall Apart, a film with the chutzpah to cast 50 as a cancer-stricken college football hero. Now Cheetah Vision has released Fire With Fire, a 50 Cent-produced Josh Duhamel vehicle that does a number of things surprisingly right, beginning with limiting the Cheetah Vision head honcho to a cameo as a glowering gun dealer who sells Duhamel a weapon. Though groaning with clichés, Fire With Fire is surprisingly not-terrible. By the low, low standards of 50 Cent’s misguided film career, that’s definitely a huge step up.
Fire With Fire casts Duhamel as a firefighter with an appropriately hackneyed backstory: His parents died in a fire when he was 8, so after a tough adolescence spent bouncing around group homes he, found a loving surrogate family in his bros at the firehouse. Duhamel loves being a firefighter, until one night he ducks into the wrong convenience store and witnesses a hulking gentleman with a swastika tattooed on his chest (Vincent D’Onofrio, who has diligently eaten his way back to his Full Metal Jacket weight) murder a black teenager in front of his father, then murder the father just to be safe. D’Onofrio, it should be noted, is the bad guy, a racist gang leader who previously murdered the partner and wife of tough-but-fair police detective Bruce Willis, who has played so many tough-but-fair police detectives that screenwriting programs now automatically plug his name in after the phrase “tough-but-fair police detective.”
Duhamel escapes and enters the witness-protection program, only to bolt when it becomes apparent they’re not too good at the whole “protecting witnesses” thing. By that point, however, Duhamel has already fallen for Rosario Dawson, the tough-but-hot deputy marshal assigned to the case. Duhamel is convinced the government can’t protect him and that the only way to ensure his safety, and the safety of his loved ones, is to go on the offensive and destroy D’Onofrio and the cornerstones of his organization himself.
The intrepid hero has a nice early monologue about how he loves entering a burning building because while the trapped civilians inside see only deadly chaos, he sees a familiar situation with rules, codes, and conditions he understands instinctively. Where others see burning death he sees a blaze that can be controlled and conquered, and terrified people who can be saved. Where others see a problem, he sees a solution; where others see certain death, he sees lives to be saved. Duhamel is used to surviving seemingly impossible situations, so when D’Onofrio marks him and his loved ones for death, he fakes a gang war between the Crips and D’Onofrio’s racist gang and goes after D’Onofrio personally. It would be tempting to write that Duhamel always sees three steps ahead in his bloody chess match with his sneering, scenery-chewing arch-enemy, but considering the film’s exceedingly modest ambitions and blunt approach to storytelling, it’s more like a blood-soaked checkers match.
The movie tries to eke a little moral ambiguity out of Duhamel turning into a cold-blooded killer after D’Onofrio makes him a target, but considering his foes are literally neo-Nazi murderers, the line separating good from evil is nevertheless still pretty clear, no matter how many thugs the revenge-minded protagonist kills. (Secondary bad guys in this curiously star-studded vehicle include Richard Schiff as D’Onofrio’s sleazy attorney, Vinnie Jones as a glowering henchman, and Julian McMahon as a slick villain.)
Fire With Fire is cheesy but moderately effective. It’s nicely, though predictably, plotted, with payoffs aplenty; it doesn’t take a degree in film studies to figure out that the firefighting skills Duhamel talks up in the first act will figure prominently in a hokey climax that takes the title extremely literally. Fire With Fire is not a good movie, but for a direct-to-DVD, 50 Cent-produced, Josh Duhamel vehicle, it’s good enough. It not only rewards low expectations and a strong tolerance for action clichés, it angrily demands them. Still, for 50, it marks a distinct improvement over his usual fare. If 50 can continue to relegate himself to the margins of the films he produces, he might someday be as mediocre cinematically as he currently is musically, and that’s really the highest semi-praise anyone can muster for the man at this sad stage in his career.
Just how bad is it? Eh, it could be a lot worse