Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Everything that can go wrong does go wrong for a couple of corrupt homicide cops in “Disorganized Crime” director Jim Kouf’s “Gang Related,” (*** out of ****) an ensemble police procedural thriller that springs one startling surprise after another on its unsuspecting audience. This above-average but unsavory chronicle of a crime coming unraveled boasts a talented cast in a heavyweight tragicomedy of errors. What elevates “Gang Related” several notches above the ordinary gangsta epic is the film’s old-fashioned portrayal of good and evil in a morally ordered universe where everybody must atone for their sins. The filmmakers have borrowed elements as diverse as O’Henry’s classic comeuppance storytelling style and combined it with bits and pieces from big-budgeted movies such as William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985) and Joseph Ruben’s “Money Train” (1995). Indeed, Kouf’s accomplished piece of filmmaking looks like the flip side of Peter Hyams’ buddy cop movie “Running Scared” with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, although the cops that Crystal and Hines played were good guys to the core.

The characters in “Gang Related” serve as the pawns of a serpentine plot. None of them exert control over what transpires and the irony of this isn’t lost on audiences. Few ensemble movies reach the big screen anymore, so this proves both surprising and gratifying to see such a polished effort like this one. Writer & director Jim Kouf produced a similar saga with his 1989 crime spoof “Disorganized Crime.” Everything went awry for a gang of thieves in “Disorganized Crime.” In “Gang Related,” everything goes awry, too, but for the police. The chief difference is that Kouf plays it straight right down the line. Although the parable teeters at times on travesty, Kouf never shifts the accent to buffoonery. You know something is different, too, when a couple marquee stars shows up in minor of crucial roles. You can barely recognize Dennis Quaid at first as a remorseful derelict and James Earl Jones’s arrival occurs straight out of the blue.

As Detective Frank DaVinci and Rodriguez, James Belushi and Tupac Shakur create a credibly chummy chemistry. Arguing that drug dealers constitute the scum of society, they set them up for buys, knock them off, and then attribute the murders to gangs. According to DaVinci, "Drug dealers don't qualify as people. Never did, never will." DaVinci and Rodriguez have iced nine drug dealers with this reliable method of operation, using narcotics secretly liberated then later returned to the police evidence room. DaVinci and Rodriguez get the shock of their lives when they learn that their latest victim, Lionel Hudd (Kool Moe Dee of “Panther”), was an undercover D.E.A. agent. Moreover, Hudd’s superior, Agent Richard Simms (Gary Cole), is determined to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of Hudd’s murder and applies a lot of heat on the L.A.P.D. to find a suspect. Neither detective wants to confess to the crime so they search for a patsy. Several patsies don’t pan out because they have iron-clad alibis, but this doesn’t stop our unscrupulous protagonists from trying to set them up. They bring them into an interrogation room and slide the murder weapon across the desk at them and these poor fools catch the gun and wind up handling. One examines the revolver in detail and then cleverly wipes it clean and sends it sliding back at the cops. Eventually, DaVinci settles on a street bum. No sooner has Joe Doe (Dennis Quaid of “The Rookie”) been arrested than it turns out that he is a rich man thought dead for seven years. It seems that William Daine McCall, son of the founder of a major telecommunication corporation, was a celebrated surgeon who stepped out on his wife with a nurse. An argument between McCall and his wife prompted her to fly into hysterics, enough so to take their two kids and leave their home. Tragically, about a mile from home, the wife and children died in a car accident and McCall goes on a bender. Meanwhile, things keep getting worse for our protagonists. They enlist the aid of a stripper named Cynthia Webb (Lela Rochon of “Waiting to Exhale”) as an eyewitness. It seems that DaVinci is banging her on the side when he is sleeping with his wife. Cynthia buckles in court, however, when defense attorney Arthur Baylor (James Earl Jones of “Clean Slate”) tears up her contrived story under careful cross-examination, and she admits to perjury. Pretty soon the relationship between DaVinci and Rodriguez begins to deteriorate because Rodriguez lacks DaVinci’s cold, calculating nerve to kill people without a qualm.

James Belushi of “Mr. Destiny” plays an out-and-out villain here in a change-of-pace casting. He invests his character with more depth than you would normally associate with him. At times, his performance is so charismatic that you want evil to triumph. In his final screen appearance, the late rapper Tupac Shakur shows that his artistry will be missed as much by music enthusiasts as moviegoers.

Writer & director Jim Kouf has breathed new life into a routine plot by standing it on its head. Half of the fun of “Gang Related” is watching DaVinci and Rodriguez dig themselves deeper the more that they try to dig themselves out of disaster. Usually, in a movie like “Gang Related,” the heroes are the guys who are in trouble, but neither DaVinci nor Rodriguez qualify as heroes. They only character with any shred of integrity here is Cynthia. When she commits perjury, she refuses to divulge the identities of her cohorts. That’s what makes Kouf’s police thriller different and that difference might alienate orthodox crime movie junkies who need a hero to cheer. The ending is absolutely terrific!

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