Directed by Jim Kouf. Starring James Belushi, Tupac Shakur, Dennis Quaid, Lela Rochon, James Earl Jones, David Paymer, Wendy Crewson, Gary Cole, Kool Moe Dee. (1997, R, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 17, 1997
It's true: First impressions are often misleading. Starting with its title, the first 15 minutes or so of Gang Related walks and talks like just another genre piece, with its attention to female flesh, frequent use of the f-word, and lowlife story angle. But then, it defies the lowered expectations it has purposely established and develops into a cleverly plotted morality tale of sorts. The initial scenes are inauspicious enough: Two off-duty police detectives, using evidence seized in one of their cases, sell drugs to an unsuspecting dealer in a motel room and then kill him minutes later with a gun confiscated in the line of duty. Their oft-repeated scam comes to a halt, however, when it turns out that the recently deceased was an undercover DEA agent. This unfortunate development puts pressure on the two cops (who are, ironically enough, investigating the murder they committed) to find the killer quickly, before the high-profile investigation is assigned to someone else. What transpires from this point is both comical and tragic -- the more these two guys try to extricate themselves from their messy situation, the deeper the hole in which they find themselves becomes. And as things unravel, so do they. Director-screenwriter Kouf does a serviceable job behind the camera, but it's his screenplay for Gang Related that makes this movie interesting. His use of coincidence as a narrative device, while arguably contrived, plays believably, particularly when coupled with the two principals' streak of bad luck, which some might view as karmic. Only in one scene, in which the vagrant who is framed by the detectives (Quaid, who is unrecognizable for most of the film) explains to his cellmate how he came to fall from grace, does Kouf noticeably deviate from the film's tone. Although Belushi's scruffy charm has its moments, it's the late Shakur's performance as the conscience-stricken half of the duo that draws the most attention. There's a gravity to his performance that is totally unexpected, a surprise that -- given the circumstances -- is as sad as it is welcome.