You're either in, or you're gone.
Touchingly directed by star Laurence Fishburne from a self-penned script adapted from his own stage play, Riff Raff, Once in the Life makes an interesting, if downbeat, debut in the canvas chair for the charismatic actor.
Facts of the Case
One could hardly image a more unlikely pair of siblings than cool, self-assured "20/20 Mike" Williams (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix Reloaded) and his jittery, strung-out half-brother, whose name is also Michael Williams but prefers to be called Billy, or—in a nod to his penchant for arson—Torch (Titus Welliver, who also co-starred with Fishburne in Biker Boyz). 20/20 Mike—so nicknamed from his purported ability to sense danger coming a mile away—and Torch get roped into a attempt at robbing a narcotics wholesaler that goes grotesquely awry, leaving Torch with a bullet wound in his hand and the two brothers hiding out in a condemned tenement. They're soon joined by Tony the Tiger (Eamonn Walker, Unbreakable, HBO's gritty penitentiary drama Oz), Mike's former roommate when both were guests of the state. Tony is the one man Mike trusts because he, unlike Mike and Torch, is now out of "the life."
Or so Mike thinks.
You see, unbeknownst to Mike and his junkie kinsman, Tony is under the thumb of the man they just ripped off—evil druglord (is there any other kind?) Manny Rivera (Paul Calderon, 21 Grams, The Last Castle). Manny and his henchmen—including the colorfully named Freddie Nine Lives (Dominic Chianese Jr., All About the Benjamins), Buddha (Michael Paul Chan, Spy Game, The Insider), and Ruffhouse (the late Gregory Hines in a subtle, effectively menacing turn)—threaten to destroy both Tony and his wife Maxine (Annabella Sciorra, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, New Rose Hotel) if Tony doesn't exact Manny's revenge on Mike and Torch.
Which loyalties are more powerful—those forged by blood and marriage, or those born of shared hardship? By the end of this movie, 20/20 Mike, Torch, and Tony the Tiger will all find out…and not necessarily the easy way.
Listen to the plot synopsis with the names and particulars stripped away: a small group of criminals holes up in an abandoned building following a botched heist that left several people dead and one of the criminals seriously injured. Later, one of their accomplices arrives on the scene, and no one can be entirely certain whose side he's on. The rest of the story plays out in an increasingly tense, claustrophobic environment as the air turns blue with enough profanity to shock a battalion of Marines. Sound like something you've seen before, when it was called Reservoir Dogs?
The similarity between Once in the Life and Quentin Tarantino's debut effort pretty much ends with that brief sketch, but the impression is so strong it's unmistakable. Laurence Fishburne's picture has the odd quality of a Tarantino film as written by David Mamet, only with less slickness and adrenaline than QT, and only a half-measure of Mamet's oblique, stylized staginess. At the same time, it's also easily to spot the influence of Spike Lee, with whom Fishburne worked on School Daze, in the use of color, shot selection, voiceover, and especially music—the jazz score by Branford Marsalis is as lyrical and haunting as anything Bill Lee composed for his son's early films. (In his audio commentary, Fishburne notes that he was invited by Lee to star in Do the Right Thing, but declined "for crazy reasons." The opening credits sequence of Once in the Life features a solo dance routine that's an homage to Rosie Perez's street shuffle at the beginning of Lee's picture.)
A marvelous (and underrated, in my view) actor himself, Fishburne the director excels at drawing brilliant performances from his cast. As a result, his film is powerfully acted from top to bottom. Fishburne himself turns in an assured yet conflicted portrayal of a man caught up in circumstances spiraling out of his control, needing to trust the people close to him even though they may not be trustworthy. The rest of his colleagues rise to his challenge, especially Titus Welliver (another seriously underused actor), Eamonn Walker (ditto), and most memorably Gregory Hines, taking a rare spin as a villain and carrying it off with surprising flair. Even Annabella Sciorra, generally an unimpressive actress who picks up a lot of thankless "appendage" roles like this one, shines in her brief screen time.
So far, so good, right? Well…let's not be too hasty. As fine as the acting talent is—and, as noted, it's mighty fine—the film ultimately can only be as solid as its script. That's where Fishburne comes up a bit short. Once in the Life struggles like mad to break free of its stage-play origins, but never manages to pull off the feat completely. It's extremely talky for a motion picture, with a superfluity of overwritten dialogue that I'm certain could work within the natural intimacy of live theater, but that becomes ponderous and taxing in the harsher, more focused eye of cinema. At times it seems as though characters are pontificating for no better reason than Fishburne isn't sure what else they ought to be doing, and he's boxed them—and himself—into a structure where there really isn't anything else they could be doing except talking. Fishburne experiments with some flashbacks and other devices intended to open up the production, but the narrative approach remains rigidly stagebound. The director acknowledges this in his commentary, stating, "As the playwright and creator of this piece, I feel very, very protective of my words, and it would be almost impossible for me to give up very many of them…although I did have to in the final analysis." Perhaps it would have been a wise move for Fishburne to hire a seasoned screenwriter, one with experience in adapting theatrical works to film, to develop the screenplay.
That said, there's worthwhile watching here for the viewer who can anchor himself or herself to the sofa for 107 minutes of almost nonstop chatter, including several recitations of poetry—mostly by Walker, who brings a welcome verbal intensity to a task with the potential to put an audience to sleep. By the time of the picture's nerve-twisting final act and stunning denouement, those who have hung in there will be rewarded with a satisfying emotional experience. It's not as rush-inducing as your typical Hollywood shoot-'em-up, but instead offers sharp, nuanced acting by a collection of genuine professionals and an exercise in style that, though not consistently successful, beats a junky, illiterate action flick or cheesy sitcom all hollow.
Despite the fancy new keep case art promoting this DVD as part of Lions Gate's "Signature Series," complete with a replica of the director's John Hancock right across the front cover, the evidence reveals that this is the exact same disc previously released by Trimark (whose catalog Lions Gate since acquired) in 2001. How can I tell, you ask? For one thing, the disc boots up to display a Trimark logo and a series of promos for Trimark product—Lions Gate didn't even spend the handful of change that it would have cost to ditch their predecessor's marketing fluff and insert their own.
It's no surprise, then, that the transfer doesn't ascend to the level that Lions Gate's current homegrown product generally achieves. The picture quality is muddy and grainy throughout the picture, with much more grime remaining on the print than should be visible in a film of this recent vintage. Colors and shadows appear rich and natural for the most part, however, and the video shows no signs of digital artifacting or edge enhancement. The audio track—in Dolby Digital 5.1, though this dialogue-abundant film hardly requires such treatment—provides clear sound, with a nice even relationship between voices and music. Interestingly, the disc offers an isolated score option, for those who prefer to sit back and allow Branford Marsalis's tasty licks to envelop them like a snuggly jazz blanket.
The primary extra worth noting, to which I've alluded earlier in this review, is a sterling commentary by Laurence Fishburne. The director, writer, and star plainly has much love for this piece of work, and shares that love throughout his monologue. Fishburne spends most of the time talking about the history of the film's theatrical ancestor, the play Riff Raff, and the particular personal resonance this story, many of whose characters are based on people from his childhood neighborhood, has for him. There's little if any technical detail—those seeking that sort of film-school analysis won't find it here. But the listener will come away will a deeper sense of understanding of, and appreciation for, the man behind (and in front of) the camera. The theatrical trailer for Once in the Life is the sole additional content item.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What a chill to see onscreen, within the first few minutes of this motion picture, both Gregory Hines and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A pair of noble and remarkable works of art—one human, one human-made. I doubt we'll see the like of either again in this lifetime.
Once in the Life suffers the growing pains of a first-time director attempting to translate a stage production to the silver screen, but does so with the benefit of a superlative cast and a great amount of heart. You may need to bolt out to Starbucks for a venti cup of java to make it through the film's molasses-thick middle stretch. But come back and pick up where you left off, and you'll be rewarded with crisp, full-bodied work by a group of talented actors, plus a conclusion that will leave your heart thumping. Not for everyone, but if you enjoy Mamet-style dialogue density and psychological drama—and if you don't sweat the obvious, occasionally oppressive staginess of Laurence Fishburne's approach—you'll find this film well worth a look.
The Judge is compelled to find Mr. Fishburne guilty of overindulgent fondness of his own words…but then, the Judge is guilty of that crime himself on occasion.
Suspended sentence, with full credit for time served. We're in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer / Director / Actor Laurence Fishburne
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