`Poetic Justice' Bucks Convention

IN filmmaking as in other areas of life, ambition can be both a blessing and a burden.

Ambition played a positive role when writer-director John Singleton made his debut with "Boyz N the Hood" two years ago, spinning an emotionally complex narrative into a commercial and critical success despite his status as an African-American newcomer in a white-dominated industry.

But more dubious aspects of ambition make themselves felt in Singleton's new picture, "Poetic Justice," which takes on a number of issues not directly addressed in the earlier film.

It's unusual, in a movie about black characters living in tough urban environments, that "Poetic Justice" has a female protagonist and a somewhat romantic story. It focuses on the heroine's growing maturity as she grapples with problems of life and love during a rambunctious journey with a potential boyfriend. Even more unusual, the main character is an amateur poet whose verses - written by Maya Angelou, the celebrated black writer - punctuate the soundtrack at key moments in the drama.

It's clear that Singleton wants "Poetic Justice" to be conspicuously different from his previous picture and from pictures by his contemporaries (Spike Lee, Charles Burnett) on the black filmmaking scene. The problem with the movie is that its distinctive elements seem dictated less by the needs of the story than by an arbitrary decision to buck the usual conventions. The film's boldest ingredients - its feminine concerns, its voice-over poetry, its crowded mixture of subplots and moods - are so ambitiou s that they call attention to themselves instead of serving the story and characters.

The story centers on Justice, a young woman whose life comes dangerously close to falling apart when her boyfriend is murdered in a burst of gang-related violence. She manages to hang on, working in a beauty salon and writing poetry. But her faith in the future is precariously slim.

When a new acquaintance named Lucky takes an interest in her, she immediately brushes him off - partly because she's not ready for romance, and partly because he's so painfully ordinary. Then a friend talks her into coming along on a road trip, and when she meets the others involved in the journey, Lucky turns out to be the driver.

He's a decent young man in many ways, determined to earn an honest living and provide an acceptable home for his little daughter. His relationship with Justice begins on a stormy note, though, and plenty of sparks fly before they reach a delicately balanced understanding at the end of their voyage.

In outline, the plot of "Poetic Justice" is perfectly serviceable. Mainstream movies have told similar stories about white characters since Hollywood was born, and it would have been interesting to watch Singleton handle the narrative in terms of African-American values and interests, which he understood so well in his earlier movie.

In writing the screenplay, however, he has included so many incidents, feelings, and conflicts that only the most inspired two-hour film could deal with all of them effectively. Although many show strong dramatic potential, the movie has to whisk through each one as quickly as possible.

Lucky's aspirations as a serious-minded rap singer are barely sketched out, for instance, even though these play an important part in the last scenes.

To be sure, "Poetic Justice" has virtues as well as shortcomings. Pop singer Janet Jackson makes a promising movie debut as Justice, and Tupac Shakur is an offbeat leading man. The picture is smartly photographed, and Angelou's poetry is interesting to encounter in the context of a Hollywood movie.

In the end, though, "Poetic Justice" tackles more than Singleton is yet ready to accomplish. Its ambitious aims are commendable in themselves, but regrettable since they overinflate what might have been a simpler and better film.

* "Poetic Justice" has an * rating. It contains some violence and sexual activity and a great deal of vulgar language.

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