Film Review: River Runs Red

A mismatched trio of stars (John Cusack, Taye Diggs and George Lopez) stumble through this hackneyed drama about a police shooting of an unarmed young black man.
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In the nameless Rust Belt-ish town that serves as the setting for Wes Miller’s dull crime-ish drama River Runs Red, Charles (Taye Diggs) is sort of a big deal. When we first see him, he is burning the candle at both ends, trying to raise his little boy right as a steady and supportive father figure, and also clawing himself out of poverty by attending law school. The first looks like a piece of cake, as Charles projects the smooth and easy authority that Diggs has long personified. The second should have been a rougher road, but for some unaccountable reason Miller jumps straight from Charles being embarrassed by falling asleep in class to him in full professional bloom as the town’s only black judge. It’s a common problem throughout this movie: Just about any time some seedling of plot threatens to get interesting, the screenplay whips past it to focus on something else.

For the first hour of River Runs Red, it is difficult to determine what Miller is aiming for. Charles is established as a wealthy man of substance, doling out empathetic justice from the bench and hearth; “I come from the streets; I’m a judge now” is a typical pronouncement. He and his wife Eve (Jennifer Tao, stiff and showing zero chemistry with Diggs) glow with pride as his now-grown son CJ (Joseph Belk) gets ready to enroll at the police academy. For no good reason except to set him up as a later dramatic convenience, we see Charles hanging out with Horace (John Cusack), a dark-minded and sulky police detective who has “Last Good Cop” written all over him. Every now and then the movie drops in a scene with Javier (George Lopez), an auto-repair shop owner mourning the shooting death of his son by the police.

What story there is gets kicked into gear when CJ is pulled over on his way to the academy and gunned down by a pair of cops after one of them thinks he sees a gun when CJ goes for his driver’s license. The shooter, Rory (Gianni Capaldi), is a rangy and cynical sort who’s just about to kick back on retirement. He pressures his guilt-wracked partner, Von (Luke Hemsworth), into keeping mum about the shooting. Meanwhile, CJ’s parents grieve through some painful music sequences and Eve lambasts Charles for not using his position to force accountability from the police: “Did you forget your black robe doesn’t hide your black skin?” being one of her more unfortunate utterances. Occasionally Horace appears, for little reason other than to give viewers the chance to remember other, far better, movies with Cusack in them.

It’s only when River Runs Red gets to about the hour mark that a story begins to cohere. Up until that point, it had taken the most perfunctory of stabs at being a ripped-from-the-headlines drama about police shootings (a reference to Black Lives Matter feels tossed-in). Eventually, Charles’ blood comes to a slow boil and he starts recruiting allies to his cause. At that point, the screenplay transitions to mundane revenge drama, as Charles and Javier, stymied by the mayor and police, decide to get justice for their sons. Out come the rigidly set jaws as a couple of middle-aged dads turn out to be surprisingly familiar with both handguns and car chases.

It all ends on an unexpectedly glum note. While having less relevance to the current debate on racially motivated police violence than about a quarter of one episode of “American Crime,” this highly inept drama does at least understand something about the national mood: It’s no time for easy conclusions. If only a better movie could have delivered that message.