Famed rapper/actor Tupac Shakur (better known as 2Pac), whose life was unfortunately cut short a few months before as a result of gunshot wounds from a drive-by shooting that’s still unsolved to this day, had a couple films that had not yet hit theaters when he died. While his final film, the cop thriller Gang Related, wouldn’t get released until later that October, his penultimate, posthumous film Gridlock’d was ready to go that January. (There was also a film he did with Mickey Rourke, a shelved crime flick called Bullet, that went straight to video shortly after his death.)
Gridlock’d was supposed to be Shakur’s return to the big screen. Between a brief jail stint for sexual abuse charges and making music for then-gangsta rap empire Death Row Records, there were a couple of years there when the young MC—who gave impressive performances in Juice (as a murderous teen) and Poetic Justice (as Janet Jackson’s love interest)—didn’t have time to be an on-the-rise thespian. Before he went to jail, he played the heavy in the 1994 basketball drama Above the Rim, one of the many ’90s Black films whose soundtrack is still more popular than the film.
Although Shakur was getting the cold shoulder from Hollywood post-release, he triumphantly got one of the leads in Gridlock’d, playing a role Laurence Fishburne and others passed on. He plays Spoon, a rapping bass player who’s part of a jazz trio/thruple with keyboardist Stretch (a young Tim Roth) and spoken-word songstress Cookie (an even younger Thandiwe Newton). After a successful performance, they convene back to their place to take in some celebratory heroin, which junkies Spoon and Stretch easily consume and novice Cookie overdoses on.
With a hospitalized Cookie in critical condition, Spoon decides to give up the needle, urging his pal Stretch to “kick” along with him. But as they soon learn, once they begin their mission to get off smack via public detoxification programs, getting help getting clean is harder than just getting clean. Spoon and Stretch spend most of the movie going from one dingy, crowded waiting room to another, constantly being redirected by clerks who appear to be just as fed up as our antiheroes eventually get.
Although the movie’s title implies that our protagonists get continually stalled in their mission, the characters themselves are always moving. Spoon and Stretch stalk the streets like chain-smoking power-walkers, either looking for a fix to tide them over or an office that’ll finally direct them to the right program. They definitely have to pick up the pace once they get wrapped up in some danger that has both cops and dealers chasing after them. Spoon and Stretch’s journey is truly a down-and-dirty one. (Ultimately, the movie’s unabashed, filth-covered skeeviness is also its winning strength—no one can ever accuse this film of glorifying drug use.)
Released right when ’90s-era heroin chic was at its played-out peak—Trainspotting, that other black comedy about amoral junkies, came out a few months before—Gridlock’d is a gleefully grimy bit of socio-economic satire. Set in the grungy, inner-city streets of Detroit (the movie was actually filmed in Los Angeles), it’s really all about lower-class denizens stuck in a systemic maze. Whether it’s the people looking for help or the people who are supposed to help, many of the characters (the cast includes such familiar faces as Bokeem Woodbine, Lucy Liu, WKRP in Cincinnati DJ Howard Hesseman, Grey’s Anatomy doc James Pickens Jr. and the late Elizabeth Peña) are all tired, frustrated and looking for some alternative way out of the dead end they perpetually land on.
This whole thing comes to us courtesy of Vondie Curtis-Hall, a veteran actor (and native Detroiter) best known for his work on such TV dramas as Chicago Hope and ER. For his writing/directing debut, he basically told the story of the detox woes he and a pal went through back when he was a teenage musician in the ’70s, getting the sort of bureaucratic runaround that made things more comic than tragic. He also plays D-Reper, a mysterious drug dealer who goes after Spoon and Stretch. (Fun fact: Curtis-Hall followed up this film with the much-maligned 2001 Mariah Carey vehicle Glitter.)
Since Gridlock’d was unfortunately released during that time of year when theaters are populated with either future Oscar nominees or plain ol’ horrible movies studios just want to release and forget, people didn’t flock to go see it. After it grossed $2.7 million on opening weekend, this $5 million movie eventually made $5.6 million. It did get some favorable love from critics. Then-Ft. Worth Star-Telegram film critic (and another native Detroiter) Elvis Mitchell even put it on his year-end, 10-best list, saying the film “hurtled along on sheer velocity” and that Curtis-Hall “suavely exploited the feline charisma” of Shakur.
Maybe audiences were still too shell-shocked from Shakur’s murder to see the rap star play someone always bolting away from impending doom. “You ever feel like your luck’s running out, man?” Spoon asks Stretch at one point. Even a quarter-century later, that line still carries an even bleaker, grimmer sting when you know the fate of the actor who says it.
If anything, Gridlock’d (which you can’t stream anywhere online—except on this Latin-American 2Pac Facebook page) is a movie that once again shows former Baltimore School for the Arts student Shakur putting in the work. Basically playing the cool, collected Dean Martin to Roth’s foul-mouthed, dirtbaggy Jerry Lewis, Shakur is given many moments to shine, whether he’s giving a monologue about his glorious first time shooting up or simply flashing a matinee-idol smile for the camera.
Just like the movies he did before, Gridlock’d gave us a glimpse of the movie star Tupac Shakur could’ve been. It’s a damn shame a bad, bullet-ridden night in Vegas had to put all of that to an end.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.