Published October 1, 1997
Gang Related, written and directed by Jim Kouf, is better than it sounds. Given that it is yet another crooked cop caper and that it features the late Tupac Shakur in over his head as one of the two bent patrolmen, it actually manages to be watchable through the sheer strength of Kouf’s writing and direction. Only after it’s over and you think back on it does the awkwardness and unwisdom of combining an unbelievable story with too many of the clichés of 90s-noir (the stripper girlfriend, the drug deal gone bad, the police frameup).
Jim Belushi plays detective Frank DaVinci who, with his partner Rodriguez (Mr Shakur), runs a series of scams against drug dealers—selling them cocaine, taking their money, then killing them and taking back the cocaine. They need the money. DaVinci is saving up for a fishing boat and imagining himself in Hawaii; Rodriguez is being pursued for gambling debts by a small lender whom he can’t hold off anymore ( “I already have a f****** miserable life, so don’t threaten me, you lousy bag of cat s***!” ) and a very large enforcer. As the film opens, they are running one of their cons on a man who turns out to be an undercover DEA agent. When he is killed, his fellow officers are determined to track down the killers.
The two cops realize that they have to fit somebody up to take the fall and quickly or they’re going to have the feds breathing down their necks. DaVinci says to Rodriguez: “There’s no reason to panic. We’re going to find the f****** killers.”
“We are the f****** killers!”
“Since when does that matter?. . .Somebody has to go down for it. . .to fill that slot. . . We’re the teachers here. Two and two can make five. It’s our classroom. . .We’re going to supply so much f****** evidence that even the a****** we pick is going to think he’s guilty.”
The irony is that he does—because he was too drunk to remember anything, even his own name. But this is where the film goes off the rails. The drunk, now recognizable as Dennis Quaid, begins to sober up ( “Jail has been good for me,” he says) and is recognized as William McCall, who is not only the missing heir to a billion-dollar fortune but a saintly surgeon who performed organ transplants for the poor in Africa until his wife and children were killed in a car accident and he turned to the bottle. When his family’s famous attorney, Arthur Baylor (James Earl Jones), suddenly joins the defense team, it becomes obvious that DaVinci and Rodriguez are doomed.
The heart of the picture is the comic cross-talk between them as they realize that the circle is closing in around them ever tighter. And although this talk is often good, it is not enough to sustain the rickety narrative structure. Rodriguez reflects: “You know, Frank, I think maybe what we did wasn’t right.”
DaVinci thinks they’ve got to kill Cynthia (Lela Rochon), the stripper-girlfriend they’ve pressed into service as a witness. “What’s another chalk outline in this city?”
“You can’t kill everybody,” screams Rodriguez.
“Let me tell you something,” he says as they sit in their car outside the scene of a multiple homicide which they’re supposed to be investigating. “We got two stiffs in the street here, three more inside. And this is one street, in one neighborhood, in one city. I got some f****** statistics for you: we’re not killing everybody.”
A farewell irony, perhaps, is that in the movies the cops pretty much are killing everybody. As in L.A. Confidential and Most Wanted and so many more recent movies the bad guys are cops or soldiers. In the final analysis, you have to be paranoid to believe, and thus really to like a movie like this. And it is not only box office figures which suggest to us how many people are paranoid these days.