After more than 15 years as an all-purpose supporting player, rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J establishes his credentials as a charismatic romantic lead in "Deliver Us From Eva," sophomore feature by writer-director Gary Hardwick ("The Brothers"). Pic also marks a career breakthrough for femme lead Gabrielle Union.

After more than 15 years as an all-purpose supporting player, rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J establishes his credentials as a charismatic romantic lead in “Deliver Us From Eva,” sophomore feature by writer-director Gary Hardwick (“The Brothers”). Pic also marks a career breakthrough for femme lead Gabrielle Union, showcased to great effect in the title role. Well-cast relationship comedy-drama is played too broadly in the early going, but gradually settles into a more appealing groove as a glossy date-movie. Expect fair-to-good (and possibly leggy) theatrical biz, and nice ancillary numbers.

Aptly described by one character as “the sister-in-law from hell,” Eva Dandridge (Union) is a strikingly beautiful but sternly implacable professional — specifically, a by-the-book public-health inspector — who remains a fiercely protective surrogate mother to her three younger sisters, ever since their parents died many years ago.

While her siblings don’t seem to mind Eva overseeing their lives with a whim of iron, the men in their lives certainly do. At Eva’s urging, Kareenah (Essence Atkins) delays having children with Tim (Mel Jackson), her husband of three years; and Bethany (Robinne Lee) refuses to establish unmarried co-habitation with Mike (Duane Martin), her policeman boyfriend. Jacqui (Meagan Good), the third Dandridge sister, is married to Darrell (Dartanyan Edmonds), a postal carrier, but she, too, allows Eva to be the dominant influence in her life.

Chronically berated and frustrated by Eva, who easily intimidates them by using words with more than two syllables, the three buddies offer $5,000 to legendary ladies’ man Ray Adams (LL Cool J) to woo Eva, theorizing that while she’s taking care of her own business, she’ll be too busy to interfere in theirs.

Ray rises to the challenge (“If I can get that woman, I’ll go down in the player hall of fame!”) and Eva slowly succumbs to his charm. But complications arise and the player gets played when — are you sitting down? — true love blossoms.

Union shoulders the heavy burden of making a persuasive transition from bitch on wheels to woman in love. And while she’s hard-pressed to appear anything but monstrous in the overstated expository scenes, she subtly conveys a winning vulnerability as Eva lets down her emotional guard. It’s not just that Eva gets nicer — and yes, sexier — as she falls for Ray. She also grudgingly admits to twinges of weariness and resentment as she considers her seemingly endless responsibilities to sisters who don’t really want to grow up. Even as Union keeps Eva strong-willed and resourceful, she makes the character more appealingly complex as pic proceeds.

As Ray, a feckless wanderer who rarely remains in any job or with any woman for long, LL Cool J has a slightly less daunting a character arc to manage. But even during the early scenes, when his character’s less-than-admirable qualities are a potential turn-off, he effortlessly conveys an easygoing magnetism. Better still, he and Union bring out the best in each other, especially (and surprisingly) during the more dramatic emotional interludes.

(Reportedly, the rapper will be billed as James Todd Smith, his real-life moniker, for all future film acting gigs; he’s listed under both names in the closing credits of this one.)

Atkins, Edmonds and Kym Whitley (as an uninhibited beauty-shop employee) are standouts among a solid group of supporting players. During opening credits, Hardwick generates a tremendous amount of good will for his cast, and for pic itself, with terrific production number choreographed to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s classic “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Any resemblance to similar intro in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” is probably not coincidental.

Working from a long-in-development script originally envisioned as vehicle for a white cast, Hardwick directs in mostly straight-ahead, unassuming fashion, concentrating more on performances than flashy visuals. Even so, perky credits sequence is an eye-pleasing treat. Also worth noting: Careful staging and camera placement go a long way toward enabling Martin, Jackson and Edmonds to convincingly dominate more formidable LL Cool J in seriocomic confrontation scene.

Tech values are solid. Exploitable soundtrack includes chart-climbing hit “Paradise” by LL Cool J (and Amerie).

Deliver Us From Eva

Production

A Focus Features release of a Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures production. Produced by Len Amato, Paddy Cullen. Executive producers: Paula Weinstein, Barry Levinson. Directed by Gary Hardwick. Screenplay, James Iver Mattson, B.E. Brauner, Hardwick.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Alexander Gruszynski; editor, Earl Watson; music, Marcus Miller; music supervisors, Alison Ball, David Lombard; production designer, Edward T. McAvoy; art director, Bill Hiney; set decorator, Jan Pascale; costume designer, Debrae Little; sound (Dolby SR/SRD/DTS), Russell Williams II; assistant director, Rip Murray; casting, Reuben Cannon, Kim Williams. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Cinema, Houston, Jan. 16, 2003. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Ray Adams - LL Cool J Eva Dandridge - Gabrielle Union Mike - Duane Martin Kareenah - Essence Atkins Bethany - Robinne Lee Jacqui - Meagan Good Tim - Mel Jackson Darrell - Dartanyan Edmonds Ormandy - Kym Whitley Telly - Royale Watkins Oscar - Matt Winston Rashaun - Ruben Paul Lucius Johnson - Dorian Gregory

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