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Film review: Poetic Justice

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Surprisingly old-fashioned in its sentiment, "Poetic Justice" is sort of "Girlz N the Hood" on the road, a dramatic vehicle for singing star Janet Jackson.

Though written and directed by John Singleton, whose "Boyz N the Hood" gave him fame, artistic respect and an Oscar nomination, "Poetic Justice" has none of the compelling emotional punch of that film, much less the serious edge . . . though it tries.

It is, however, fairly entertaining, and certain scenes do carry some weight.

Told largely, though not entirely, from a female point of view, the focus is on Jackson's character, Justice, a beautician who writes some heartfelt poetry (contributed by Maya Angelou).

The film opens with a wallop, as Justice witnesses the murder of her boyfriend at a drive-in movie. It's not the first tragedy in her life, but it is a pivotal one, which effectively shuts her down.

Meanwhile, a postal worker named Lucky (Tupac Shakur) has problems of his own, including a young daughter whose mother is a prostitute/junkie.

It's inevitable that these two will get together, but their initial meeting is anything but cordial. So, they are less than thrilled to find themselves traveling companions on a road trip from South Central Los Angeles to Oakland.

Much of the film focuses on that trip, and their squabbling best friends (Regina King and Joe Torry) quickly wear out their welcome as they get louder and more obnoxious. But the film gets better as it settles into quiet observations of Justice and Lucky tentatively trying to open up to each other.

Unfortunately, "Poetic Justice" is seriously hampered by too many scenes like the one where Justice and Lucky fight on the road and he drives off, leaving her behind. Singleton is going for broad comedy here but it's nothing more than a verbal exchange of profanity without any cleverness to temper it. He also seems at sea with the opening sequence, as a movie-within-the-movie is projected on a drive-in screen. This campy takeoff on typical Hollywood romantic thrillers is wildly out of place here.

Still, it isn't a total dud and shouldn't sully Singleton's reputation. Let's remember that Steven Soderbergh's second film after "sex, lies and videotape" was the forgettable "Kafka." And Spike Lee followed up his first, "She's Gotta Have It," with the dubious "School Daze." Singleton no doubt still has some live shells to fire.

Meanwhile, a real plus are both Jackson, in her film debut, and Shakur (who was also memorable in "Juice"), who make solid impressions. And Jackson's reading of Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" is excellent.

"Poetic Justice" is rated R for an unfortunate steady stream of profanity, along with some vulgar sexual remarks, a graphic sex scene and marijuana smoking. There is also some PG-level violence.