The black urban gangsta world is penetrated by acclaimed Irish filmmmaker Jim Sheridan (In America) in working with hip-hop megastar Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson in Get Rich or Die Tryin'.
This interesting combination of director and 50 Cent in his screen debut has its rewards in relating incidents similar to what has happened in the artist's tumultous, but finally enlightening life. The cumulative effect doesn't have the dramatic resonance of Sheridan's best films like My Left Foot with the familiarity of an artist making a life-affirming change through music.
Just as In America, 50 Cent's Marcus has to overcome large obstacles like a stranger in a new land dealing with the likes of poverty, illness, and racial prejudice. The script from Terence Winter ("The Sopranos") has ties with films like 8 Mile and New Jack City in presenting a collage of Marcus's life. It allows a promising Jackson to show some acting chops amid the squalor of drugs and violence while revisiting some of the most harrowing parts of his life.
An intense start has Marcus on the brink of death as he tries to reach his white Mercedes, nearly left for dead by a hitman. The screenplay consists of mostly an extended flashback beginning in 1980's Queens with Marcus's childhood. Marc John Jeffries is very good and closely resembles a young 50 Cent as Sheridan nicely shows the close relationship with mother Katrina (Serena Reeder) and how Marcus develops respect for women.
After the horrible death of his mother, Marcus becomes a drug dealer like her, jockeying for position on the streets and getting the attention of a father figure mentor, Majestic, endowed with sagely menace by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. This natural but perilous activity creates tension notably with Marcus's grandmother, done with wistful wisdom by Viola Davis, who wants him alive as the rent gets paid. A double life will last until a near tragedy will force Marcus to radically change his life as dealing finally takes its toll.
As kids Marcus and childhood friend Charlene were connected by rap music and separated by it because of the lurid lyrics heard by her parents from records he gave her. She returns to the city to rekindle their shared love and feelings for one another. Joy Bryant (The Skeleton Key) brings much class to this exiled woman who will father his son, giving up a career in dancing. Her soothing presence helps soften the mood of some harsher sequences that recall moments in Brian DePalma's ultra-violent Scarface.
Another key supporting character is Terrence Howard's Bama, Marcus's amusingly uptight and loyal friend who'll become his manager. They are kindred spirits from an orphaned background who come to meet after a bloody attack in a prison shower. Howard is in his element here after a star turn in the similarly-themed Hustle & Flow as a pimp who calls himself DJay.
Sheridan and Winter show how Marcus (dubbed Young Caesar) has the same lively attitude towards making music as he did with drugs. He always had the rap beating within and needed no motivation and we see him writing down some of the words with a razor blade in one of his loneliest moments.
The last act replays more vividly the event and effect of what traumatically happened in front of his grandparents' house. It shows how family leads to his survival with a vengeful climactic confrontation on the verge of a 4th of July performance. The lensing by Declan Quinn adds an underlit, gritty texture that confers the proximity of hip-hop to real life in the black subculture that Sheridan identifies like the one in Hell's Kitchen where In America took place.
Though Majestic wields a sword like Wesley Snipes did as Nino Brown and Bill Duke is steely as drug czar Levar, Get Rich or Die Tryin' doesn't leave the desired emotional lyrics on the viewer like an 8 Mile or Hustle & Flow. 50 Cent gives his fans the basic facts of his life in a cautionary manner, yet his entrepenneurial might and Sheridan's artistry doesn't make a desperate search for a father the kind of redemptive, poignant experience it should have been.