The effort to expand Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s empire from rap star and vitamin-water millionaire to movie star has been a lesson in the folly of confusing a person’s story with his ability to bring that story authentically to the screen. Just as Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II, never earned an Oscar to go with his Medal Of Honor, Jackson’s legendary street exploits—he was shot nine times at close range and survived—haven’t translated to big-screen charisma and acting chops. There are many things wrong with Freelancers, a shoddy (almost) straight-to-DVD thriller about police corruption, but having Jackson in nearly every scene is problem No. 1, because his flat, halting delivery keeps smothering whatever tension and momentum the film is trying to build up. And casting him against titans like Robert De Niro and Forest Whitaker, even when they’re in paycheck mode, does his performance no favors.
A garden-variety tale of rogue policemen à la Training Day or The Shield, Freelancers stars Jackson as the troubled son of a slain NYPD officer who earns a spot on the force. While his fellow academy graduates are stuck on uniformed duty, Jackson’s name earns him entre into a secret unit of plainclothes detectives who snort cocaine, shake down dealers for a generous cut, and congregate in private clubs flush with liquor and available women. De Niro plays the ringleader of the operation, who brings Jackson into the fold out of respect for his name, just so long as his young charge doesn’t poke into his father’s death or do anything resembling police work. Whitaker adds to the gravitas as Jackson’s high-living new partner.
The script, by L. Philippe Casseus, adds a shade of complexity to Jackson’s character by making him eminently corruptible: He may be relentless in seeking revenge for his father, but he’s not immune to the temptations of De Niro and his crew; he’s also unafraid to leverage more power when the opportunity presents itself. But the moral turbulence within—so key to the tension Ethan Hawke’s tormented rookie brings to Training Day—doesn’t register in Jackson’s performance because he doesn’t have the range for it. Director Jessy Terrero, the music-video veteran responsible for Soul Plane and the previous (almost) straight-to-DVD Jackson movie Gun, provides the skeleton of a classic James Ellroy story but none of the flesh and blood. Merely exposing this corrupt subculture of badge-carrying elites isn’t enough; doing Ellroy without texture or nuance is just a different set of clichés.
Key features: Terrero and Jackson provide a dull commentary track enlivened only by Jackson’s frequent references to “your boy 50 Cent,” and there are 18 minutes of deleted scenes for those curious about footage that wasn’t good enough to make this stinker.