Once In The Life

on October 27, 2000 by Michael Tunison
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   Based on his 1994 play "Riff Raff" and retaining the distinctive rhythms of the stage, actor Laurence Fishburne's screenwriting-directing debut "Once In the Life" unfolds more like vintage David Mamet than the routine gangsta flick its drugs-and-hoodlums storyline might lead one to expect. The solid drama at its core, refined by Fishburne ("The Matrix") when he directed and starred in the stage version, gives the piece a richness of character that quickly separates its from the flashier but artistically less ambitious B-movies that typify the genre.

   Early scenes follow the awkward reunion of two estranged half-brothers from a mixed-race family, heroin addict Torch (Titus Welliver of TV's "Brooklyn South") and Fishburne's smooth flimflam man "20/20" Mike (so-named for his uncanny ability to spot danger before it happens). After the two bungle the theft of some product from minions of a local druglord, the drama essentially reverts to its origin as a stage three-hander, with the half-brothers and 20/20's trusted pal, Tony "the Tiger" (Eamonn Walker of HBO's "Oz"), holing up in an abandoned building while trying to figure out a way to escape the druglord's wrath. What 20/20 and Torch don't know is that Tony has been sent by the boss to kill them.

   While the choppy opening section gets things off to a somewhat clumsy start, Fishburne is on solid ground as soon as he reaches the central drama set in the hideout. A few theatrical devices come off as self-consciously stagey on-screen (Walker reciting a long mean-streets poem at various intervals, the constant repetition of key phrases of dialogue), but Fishburne's sure-handedness when digging into meaty themes such as brotherhood and betrayal ultimately wins the day. Always an actor of unusual substance and intensity, he brings those same qualities to his promising debut as a film director.    Starring Laurence Fishburne, Eamonn Walker, Titus Welliver, Annabella Sciorra and Gregory Hines. Directed and written by Laurence Fishburne. Produced by David Bushell, Laurence Fishburne and Helen Sugland. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive language, strong violence and some drug content. Running time: 106 min.

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