'Gang Related': a wonderful excuse Review: James Belushi and Tupac Shakur bring high performances to low characters.

October 08, 1997|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

"Gang Related" isn't about heroes. It's about scumbags. It is a sticky spider-web of a movie that spins circles around its villains, so that every strand they break in trying to escape entangles them further.

Director and writer Jim Kouf (who was responsible for the tepid "Operation Dumbo Drop," of all things) has created a nameless city like so many cities, bleak and broken, whose drug-infested heart is filled with despair. Worse, the leeches who feed off the bloodshed are cops.

James Belushi plays the sociopath of the pair; late rapper Tupac Shakur is the morally malleable one. Together, they set up drug deals, take the money, whack the dealers, repossess the drugs and cynically dub the murder "gang-related" when they are asked to investigate.

Divinci, Belushi's character, has two goals: early retirement to Hawaii and maintaining his (very sick) sense of humor. Shakur, as Rodriguez, is less ambitious; he desperately needs to pay off a gambling debt to a loan shark. When their latest "gang-related" murder victim turns out to be an undercover DEA agent, their partnership is put to the test. They must cover up the crime while keeping their co-conspirator, an exotic dancer (Lela Rochon), from talking.

That's only the beginning of the complications. Their patsy (see if you can recognize Dennis Quaid under all that beard) seems an obvious choice, a drunk on the street who can't remember his own name -- until his family remembers his name for him. Meanwhile, Divinci makes evidence disappear and reappear from this case and that case until his conspiracy is built on a house of cards.

Belushi, who so rarely registers as a dramatic lead, has found a role that suits him. His offhand manner conceals his character's nasty inner workings while implying that he's evolved way beyond corrupt cop into psycho.

Shakur, who performs four previously unreleased songs on the soundtrack, is a softer presence. His troubled demeanor can't help but evoke the rapper's grim, short life. He plays a hollow man whose ethics are confused at best, who is too weak to refuse Belushi despite misgivings and too selfish to take a strong moral stand.

Rochon is sympathetic as their accomplice, even if her character is borderline despicable (and there are too many loving shots of her pole-dancing). Minor characters enrich the story, from James Earl Jones' distinguished lawyer to Wendy "Air Force One" Crewson's amusing dragon-lady prosecutor.

But the most interesting aspect of the film is its sense of karmic retribution. Coincidences pile so high that "Gang Related" sometimes seems like a comedy -- not necessarily a bad thing. They all point to a larger force at work. Though not every evil is punished, the events in this film noir seem to have sprung from chaos theory: In their randomness, they draw a pattern. "Gang Related" delights in bedeviling the devils.

'Gang Related'

Starring James Belushi, Tupac Shakur and Lela Rochon

Directed by Jim Kouf

Released by Orion

Rated R (nudity, language, violence)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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