Given the Rocky-esque optimism of Eminem's 8 Mile, you couldn't be blamed for expecting a similar feel-good movie debut from his platinum-selling protg, 50 Cent. Instead, Get Rich or Die Tryin', the riveting film loosely based on the life of the Queens MC, is as grim and unapologetic as his hard-core lyrics.
Embittered by his mother's brutal murder, young Marcus (impressively played as a kid by Marc John Jefferies, then by 50 Cent himself) puts his rap-star ambitions on hold to sell crack. Despite pesky rival Colombian drug dealers who cramp his hustle, he makes stacks of easy money until a police bust gets him locked up. That's where a light bulb clicks on: When Bama, an excitable fellow inmate played with a slick cocksureness by Terrence Howard, urges him to rap full-time, Marcus concurs. (The revelation, however, is less moral epiphany than savvy business decision.) Back on the streets, jealous former allies plot Marcus's downfall, but ultimately he cheats death to rhyme another day.
It all sounds like familiar hood-flick fare, but save for one flat, teary-eyed scene, Fiddy's brooding performance gives Get Rich an authentic emotional heft rarely seen in the genre. And even when the body count approaches Oz-like proportions, a strong supporting cast and dark storytelling by director Jim Sheridan (In America, My Left Foot) keep the film from slipping into urban caricature.—Brett Johnson