Judge Bill Gibron feels this unique animated documentary has "flava." Too bad the "unauthorized" nature of the production left it limited in its actual 50 Cent content.
A not-so-bum rap?
When he was eight years old, Curtis Jackson's mother was killed. She was a crack dealer. A scant four years later, Jackson was on the streets of Jamaica, Queens, pushing the same substances that got his mom murdered. With hustling a part of his genetics, it wasn't long before the brash young thug was the target of rival dealers. Simultaneously, Jackson was also befriended by Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay, who tried to point the talented kid in the right direction. A stint in prison helped hone Jackson's desire to make it outside the dangerous world of dope. A feud with Manhattan music empire Murder, Inc. resulted in a supposedly unrelated stabbing. After signing with Columbia and preparing for a video shoot, Jackson—now dubbed "50 Cent"—was shot nine times by an unknown assailant. The gun-shy label instantly dropped him. When certified superstar Eminem bragged about 50's mix tape skills during a radio interview, the offers suddenly came flooding back in and soon 50 was in the studio working with the infamous white rapper and his pal/producer, Dr. Dre. The result was the massive mega-hit Get Rich or Die Tryin'. With success came a renewal of all the old street beefs, including a telling tiff with Ja Rule. All the time, during the highs and the lows, 50 was solely focused on conquering the hip-hop community. The fact that he did proves that, when it comes to drive and determination, 50 Cent will most definitely Refuse 2 Die.
What do you do when you want to make a biography of one of the most enigmatic stars in all of rap, yet you can't get cooperation from his camp, his record label, or the artist himself. Well, if you're Mike Corbera and Rick Underhill, you find a group of like-minded filmmakers and employ the latest cutting-edge CGI and animation techniques to deliver an unauthorized docu-drama about the hip-hop hero's life and times. How else could one explain the slightly surreal take on the life of Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson as told in 50 Cent: Refuse 2 Die. Using the unique cartoon conceit, Corbera and Underhill have crafted an intriguing and engaging, if ultimately underwhelming, look at the rags-to-riches story of one of music's most magnetic performers. By intercutting interviews (only 50's granddad shows up to speak, while other artists like DMC and Treach add their own varying views), stock footage, and a cleverly created computer images, we get a straight ahead narrative that walks us through the street toughened thug's original gansta ghetto existence. We learn about 50's family, his crack-dealing mother who died selling dope, the decision to follow in her criminal footsteps, and the mafia-like music business that traffics in illicit drugs to finance an ever-growing roster of performers.
If there is a key word in 50's pre-pop stardom life—and this film—it's "hustle." It's a term used over and over again. One of the more bland ideas the filmmakers follow is the use of an expositional narrative, a voiceover artist mimicking 50 as he tells the tale of living at the end of the social strata. While occasionally helpful, the overreliance on this intermittently monotonous monologue (again, "hustle" and its variations - "hustler," "hustling"—are heard more frequently than the standard street slang) really reduces the drama. When Corbera and Underhill are using their brilliantly drafted images to recreate events that affected 50, we completely buy the reality ruse. But the minute our substitute storyteller starts spinning his web of middling machismo (with lots of perfunctory references to women as "bitches and hos"), we grow antsy. We just want to know what makes this fascinating phenom tick. Some would say it's all the references to The Godfather and its stars—Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. 50 apparently idolizes these fictional entities, giving them characteristics and ideals that don't really exist. Instead of seeing them as the shady underworld criminals they are, our rap hero views them as—you guessed it, the ultimate "hustlers." Yet instead of getting to the heart of all this manic moving and shaking, Corbera and Underhill just let their imitator talk.
Another problematic part of this presentation is its lack of 50 Cent's signature sounds. As is the case with anything unauthorized, the ability to dive into this artist's extensive catalog is nonexistent. So anyone hoping to hear "In Da Club" or "P.I.M.P." will be disappointed. To this critic's untrained ear, it does sound like several 50 Cent lyric lines are used, interpreted by other rappers or redone to avoid licensing issues. Whatever the case, the lack of this material is frustrating. It is always better to lead by example rather than exposition. Also, there is no analysis of how 50 Cent became such a rap superstar. There is a suggestion that the connection to great white hype Eminem was like an instant badge of acceptability and the acknowledgement of the late great Jam Master Jay's influence and Dr. Dre's hit-making machinery were part of the popularity picture. Yet there is no clear distinction between his pre-success and post-success lives. It's all a repetitive reminder of how hard 50 "hustles" and how the music game is as dangerous and deadly as drug dealing. Still, the amazing animation, loaded with style, artistry, and insight, keeps us connected, rendering what should be an easily dismissed tie-in or rip-off into a compelling piece of filmmaking. The story inside may be missing a few key components, but the overall presentation suits the subject and his story extremely well.
New Line Cinema's treatment of this title is uniformly impressive. Beginning with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that really captures the colorful and detailed quality of the imagery, this DVD delivers dynamite technical specs. Even better are the various audio mixes. While the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 Surround contains some nice directional elements and spatial ambience, the 5.1 Surround soundtrack puts it to shame. There is real separation in the sonics, with the occasional hip-hop track or rap sample really overloading the speakers. In addition, we are treated to a wealth of bonus material, including an animation gallery (featuring clips from the film), a trailer, a G-Unit photo shoot, a look at a short film entitled Massive Swerve (more pen and ink goodness), and an entire section of "Making of" material. When this option is selected, one is offered a look at animated sketches and storyboards, information on how the 3-D city and other computer techniques were realized, and a chance to watch featured rapper Kspawn freestyle. Perhaps the best bonus is the full-length audio commentary from directors Corbera and Underhill and graphics director Stephen Burr. Discussing all aspects of the film's creation from the decision to go for a young, hip demographic to avoiding the legal issues involved, this is a very hands-on discussion and well worth a listen for its insights into animation and storytelling.
Refuse 2 Die deserves maximum kudos for turning the life of Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson into a Grand Theft Auto-esque view of real world vice. While it does drone on about certain subjects for far too long, it's aesthetic ambitions help it win out in the end. This may be an unauthorized biography, but the manner is which it is realized makes Refuse 2 Die hard to deny.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Full-length Audio Commentary with directors Mike Corbera and Rick Underhill and graphics director Stephen Burr
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