Laurence Fishburne's 1994 play Riff Raff provides the basis for Once in the Life, the story of half-brothers, one black (Fishburne) and one white (Titus Welliver), who reunite after years apart, while waiting for release from an overnight Manhattan jail.

20/20 Mike (Fishburne) is an ex-convict trying to free himself from a life of crime. Torch (Welliver) is a petty thief and drug addict trying to support his habit. Following the men's jail stint, Freddie Nine Lives (Dominic Chianese, Jr.), Mike's streetwise friend, sets up an enticing drug deal, which plunges Mike back 'in the life' of crime. Unfortunately, the brothers find themselves hunted by Manny Rivera (Paul Calderon), the local crime boss, when Manny's nephew is accidentally killed during the exchange.

Mike takes Torch to a hideout while he contacts his former prison cellmate, Tony the Tiger (Eamonn Walker), for help. Little does Mike know that his old friend Tony is now working with Manny and has been assigned the task of killing Mike. To add pressure to Tony's job, Manny kidnaps Tony's wife (Annabella Sciorra) and child (Madison Riley). During a long night in the hideout, suspicions develop among the three men, until the truth is revealed and decisions have to be made about who survives and who doesn't.

'Once in the life, always in the life,' Torch declares early in the story. This fatalistic message is nothing new to crime drama-think of The Godfather Part III. But Fishburne adds enough nuance to the piece to make it worthwhile. The actor-director surrounds himself with a talented team: Branford Marsalis turns in a delicate jazz score; cinematographer Richard Turner finds saturated color values and noir-ish shadows throughout, and editor Bill Pankow beautifully incorporates flashback dissolves and one great split-screen.

The performances vary: Fishburne is solid, Welliver is touching (overwhelmingly so by the end), and Michael Paul Chan and Gregory Hines are chilling (they play vicious, joke-cracking thugs). But Sciorra is wasted in the traditional hand-ringing wife role and Walker (a British actor sans accent) overplays the key part of Tony. Actually, Walker has an arresting presence, but he's given too many theatrical monologues, including several laced with 'jailhouse-poetry shit,' as it's described. So you can't entirely blame the actor.

Likewise, the most dramatically involving scenes occur in the hideout, but this last half of the film seems stagy. The confined, almost surreal hideout set puts into relief the play's question about which is stronger, race or blood ties. Yet the results seem forced and self-conscious, unlike the earlier, Mean Streets-styled scenes on actual New York City locations.

Despite this major flaw, enough expertise has been lavished on this small film to make one almost forget that Once in the Life has been done more than once before.

--Eric Monder