For their New Year’s resolutions, Stretch (Roth) and Spoon (Shakur) – two junkies who moonlight as jazz musicians when they aren’t copping, shooting up, or dragging OD’d friends to the emergency room – decide to kick heroin once and for all. So much for the easy part. Now comes the William Burroughs nightmare journey through a bureaucratic Inferno of interminable Medicaid approvals, lazy nitwit caseworkers, senseless regulations, and welfare offices that shift locations overnight like Saharan sand dunes. Our byzantine, indigent health-care system seems a logical enough subject for the directing and writing debut of Vondie Curtis Hall, who’s best known as a regular on the TV medical drama Chicago Hope
. But there’s a lot more going on here than an earnest freshman civics thesis on the need for reform. Though Hall’s grungy urban tableau owes a lot to Tarantino and Scorsese, he also displays a uniquely jaundiced satirical vision that Céline and Kafka would heartily endorse. Sad sacks though they are, Spoon and Stretch are also droll commentators on the perversity of a system that asks strung-out addicts to muster the discipline of Olympic decathletes in order to get help. The late Shakur is especially impressive as the brighter of the duo – a frazzled but infinitely patient character with a touching faith that somehow, if the pair just keeps plugging away, everything will turn out okay. Displaying a wealth of subtlety, sweet-natured humor, and introspection that were almost wholly absent from his run-of-the-mill, G rap music, he leaves no doubt that acting was his dominant talent. He more than holds his own with Roth, whose Stretch sometimes comes across as a pastiche of Tarantino lowlife characters. In a cockeyed but inspired narrative move, Hall supplements his two drugstore cowboys’ red-tape battles with an ongoing plotline in which they’re pursued by vice cops and a menacing local gangsta named D Reper (Hall in classic Superfly TNT
ultrapimp attire) in scenes that feel like outtakes from some hazily recalled Seventies blaxploitation flick. Heady and enjoyable as it is, GRIDLOCK’d
is also, in many ways, a disjointed, shambling mess. Reeling from near-slapstick to stark realism to gentle buddy comedy, it feels very much like the apprentice work it is. But Hall is clearly a bold and idiosyncratic talent whose grasp will someday match his long reach.