A film that starts promisingly as the unsentimental portrayal of a rural black community, “Jason’s Lyric” stumbles into a lame love story and ends in a conventional shootout and bloodbath. Pic’s something-for-everyone philosophy could backfire into a meager B.O. harvest for helmer Doug McHenry, who co-produced with partner George Jackson (“New Jack City,””House Party 2”). Venice fest screening attracted little buzz.
Most convincing part is the prelude, in which Maddog (Forest Whitaker) comes home from Vietnam with one leg and a heart full of bitterness. His beloved wife, Gloria (Suzzanne Douglas), bars him from the house to protect herself and their two small boys from his violent temper. In a tragic scuffle, he is fatally shot by one of the boys.
Years later, little Jason (Allen Payne) has grown up into a clean-cut TV salesman with aspirations, while his black-sheep brother Joshua (Bokeem Woodbine) is a cokehead ne’er-do-well who’s in and out of jail. Father’s death has left its mark on Jason, too, in recurring nightmares and a paralyzing guilt complex.
He falls for a high-spirited waitress, Lyric (Jada Pinkett), and spends much screen time courting her and talking about their dreams for the future. Meanwhile, Joshua falls in with a bad gang planning a bank robbery. When he botches it, they string him up in a garage and torture him Tarantino-style (mostly off-camera).
Violent finale is an old-fashioned, at-home shootout that pits the two brothers against each other and resolves the original family tragedy with more tragedy.
Whitaker is moving as the crippled father, whose hopeless passion for Gloria touches depths of sorrow. Payne (“New Jack City”) is a serious, straight-arrow hero who’s easy to sympathize with. As the bad seed, Woodbine never loses his little-boy tenderness, even at his most frightening and demented. As the poetic Lyric, Pinkett is bright and attractive but lacks the convincing roughness that would correspond to her environment.
McHenry keeps the story moving smoothly and at a good pace. Abundant aerial shots give perspective to the setting — a run-down black area on the outskirts of Houston, with the city skyline rising in the background like a faraway dream. Francis Kenny’s lensing is high-quality throughout. Soundtrack by Afrika and Matt Noble is easy listening.