Even though it’s inspired by the real life of rap megastar Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” has the pulpy feel of fictional gangsta melodrama that plays like a contrived cross between “New Jack City” and “Hustle & Flow.” Mildly engaging but very far from being for 50 Cent what “8 Mile” was for Eminem, this lurchingly structured story of survival against the odds looks to get off to a strong start thanks to the singer’s large following, but is a longshot to generate significant cross-over or the conversion of new fans.
Although 50 Cent is the big story here, the pic is notable as a departure for director Jim Sheridan, inasmuch as it marks his first feature on a non-Irish subject. All the same, “Get Rich” can be seen as something of a companion piece to Sheridan’s last film, “In America,” in its view of striving against the tide toward vindication and success through self-reliance in New York City.
Violent grabber of an opening has Marcus (50 Cent) and cohorts barging into a Latino-run money laundering office to pull off a big robbery, a fiasco that leads to Marcus lying on the street about to be shot. Narration and a flashback then send the action to the ’70s Bronx, where young Marcus (a convincing Marc John Jefferies), who doesn’t know who his father was, is being raised by drug dealing mama Katrina (Serena Reeder) with the help of other relatives.
When Katrina is killed in a turf war, Marcus starts selling dime bags and buys a gun. At a little more than 20 minutes in, 50 Cent takes over as Marcus, who pursues the gangsta lifestyle by assembling his own crew of three cohorts and working under the auspices of local drug kingpin Levar (Bill Duke) and Levar’s volatile henchman Majestic (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Intermittent battles with Colombian dealers thin the ranks, but Marcus gets fully into the gangsta life, “gettin’ paid and gettin’ laid,” buying a white Mercedes with cash (but without a driver’s license), reconnecting with childhood sweetie Charlene (Joy Bryant) and toying with being a rapper under the moniker Young Caesar.
The life eventually trips Marcus up, however, and he lands in the slammer, where he’s rescued during a vicious shower room knife attack by the loquacious Bama (Terrence Howard). In solitary, Marcus realizes he must “express myself or die,” and with Bama proposing to be his manager, Marcus begins scratching lyrics on his cell wall.
Back on the outside, life tears at Marcus from every direction: Majestic expects him to return to the fold as an important drug dealer, Charlene delivers him a son, and Marcus and Bama try to get the rap career going. In extremis without a record deal, Marcus undertakes the botched robbery of the opening and proceeds, as 50 Cent famously did, to have nine bullets pumped into him.
From there, it’s a story of resurrection from the left-for-dead, of summoning up the strength and determination to forge an American self-made success story that Ayn Rand herself would have been proud of.
Nevertheless, “Get Rich” spends far more time on the criminal story mechanics than on creating a revealing portrait of the artist as a young man. “8 Mile” managed to convey to the uninitiated a strong sense of what made Eminem tick, the real life elements that fed his work and the circumstances under which he tested and developed his material. (An Eminem-like figure named Dangerous hovers inscrutably in the background of Marcus’ story.)
In “Get Rich” Marcus wants to be a rapper from an early age, but what drives him musically (as opposed to commercially) is vague, and insufficient evidence from his work is offered to convince the uncommitted observer of his musical talent. Unlike with “8 Mile” or, for that matter, “Hustle & Flow,” there’s no moment that wins the audience over to Marcus’ artistic cause or, by extension, to the film. One is left with the feeling of having watched an imitation of life rather than something close to the real thing, no matter how accurately the script by “Sopranos” vet Terence Winter may reflect 50 Cent’s own.
As a bigscreen leading man, 50 Cent possesses a degree of charisma and appeal. But he can’t convey emotional turmoil, the electricity of artistic ferment or a sense of unpredictable danger, resulting in just moderate overall impact. When Howard finally explodes on the scene an hour in, he forcibly reminds what a real actor can bring to a role.
Bryant is smartly appealing as Marcus’ sweetheart, while the thesps playing the villains lay it on pretty thick, Akinnuoye-Agbaje with leers and taunts, and the dapper Duke as a hoarse whisperer worthy of Brando’s Godfather.
Pic is dark to the point of murky inscrutability at times, and the overall look is unattractive. Other tech contributions are routine.
Only real performance footage of 50 Cent comes alongside the end credits.