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Once in the Life

Starring Laurence Fishburne, Titus Welliver, Eamonn Walker
Gregory Hines and Annabella Sciorra
Written and Directed by Laurence Fishburne

IN SHORT: A completely confusing tale of the street. [Rated R. minutes]

Once in The Life is actor Laurence Fishburne's feature directorial debut, adapting his stage play "Riff Raff." As with a lot of adaptations, this one tries to "open up" the play and in doing so shoots itself in the foot. We don't compare to the Source Material and we don't have to do so in this case. The first ten minutes or so of Once in The Life are so utterly confusing that even as the story stabilizes, it's too late for a viewer to connect to the principal characters and care about the goings on.

At its root Once in The Life is about 20/20 Mike (Fishburne) and Torch (Titus Welliver) a pair of half brothers who rip off drug lord Manny Rivera (Paul Calderon), based on information supplied by Freddie Nine Lives (Dominic Chianese, Jr.). Torch is a junkie. 20/20 Mike has an extraordinary sixth sense that warns him of impending trouble. Except for the one time it doesn't . . .

What Mike and Torch don't know is that the stash they've snatched was sold to a friend of theirs, Tony the Tiger (Eamonn Walker), a man who they believed was no longer "in the life". Said friend is put in the unwieldy position of having to extract the proper penance from the thieves, or face a horrible fate at the hands of the distributor's henchmen (including Gregory Hines). If the film had kept it to that, there would have been no confusion.

Well, that's what I thought I saw. According to the press notes, Tony is Rivera's stooge as well, instructed to revenge the death of his boss' nephew, who was killed in the heist. We remember the heist. We remember the killing. We didn't read the notes first. It's all news to us. See paragraph uno.

What Fishburne has added -- we're guessing because it doesn't have the same "feel" as the scenes clearly written for the stage -- is a brief flashback revealing how the brothers first met and a scene involving an observant police sergeant who puts the pair together in a lockup cell. Her reasons for making the connection, other than the fact that Mike and Torch both claim to be "Michael Williams" is strained and doesn't logically work. The revelation of what actually happened when the heist went down, heck, if it had been clearly laid out we wouldn't have missed anything. And once Freddie Nine Lives sets up the heist that goes wrong, this middleman/ stoolie/ doublecrossing drug subordinate -- even we don't know what this dude's deal is -- gets his own substory which we couldn't follow, either. When his arc ends, not only did we not care, we didn't see its have any effect on the main story.

When the film settles back and lets the long time relationships between the three principals work its way up from the mire, we got a sense of where the actors could've taken the story. Stories, after all, are all about relationships. It's in the attempt to flush out the background material and character histories that Once in the Life flounders. The first few scenes, when we're supposed to be learning who everyone is, jumps so furiously that there's no way to get a handle.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Once in the Life, he would have paid...


Once in the Life is a mess. You can wait to rent, if you'd like a challenge. We were lost.

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