John Singleton’s follow-up to “Boyz N the Hood” and the screen debut of Janet Jackson cannot sustain the scrutiny and expectation that inevitably follow a conspicuous first film. “Poetic Justice” is a hermetic inner-city love story elevated by resonant social commentary. It has an obvious appeal to a core ethnic audience but faces a challenge tapping into the mainstream.
The film begins promisingly enough with the central character, Justice (Jackson), at the local drive-in with her boyfriend. The momentary idyll quickly disintegrates when a nabe hothead recognizes the young man as someone who crossed his path. The firebrand kills the beau while in the girl’s embrace.
The violent setup looms over the narrative without tying in to the rest of the story. Justice, chastened by the incident, has cut herself off from the world outside the beauty salon where she works. Lucky (Tupac Shakur), the young letter carrier on the shop’s route, attempts to break the ice with brittle consequences.
This second section is also a bit of a dead end. While we learn something of the environment and background of the two characters, it is no more than a prologue for what ultimately turns into the heart of the film. Singleton has chosen a most awkward and confusing way to develop his story.
Things finally get into gear when Justice’s trip from South Central L.A. to Oakland is fouled up by a dead car battery. Her friend Iesha (Regina King) arranges a last-minute ride with Chicago (Joe Torry) and his buddy, who turns out to be Lucky, the mailman.
The trip in a U.S. Postal Service truck is a gem that begins as a variation of the classic romantic comedy — two people who can’t stand each other are thrust into close quarters and wind up in love.
And the road provides choice opportunities for digression, including clever stops that involve crashing a family reunion and attending an African fair. But auds may be distanced by the disjointed nature of the ramble. Singleton proves himself an adept director, fascinated with the echoes beneath the narrative. But his writing skills are less assured.
Jackson proves herself a natural in front of the camera in a thoughtful performance. This is not a “star is born” role, but it places her among faces to watch.
Shakur has the juicier part and turns in truly outstanding work. The vignette structure also allows a considerable number of actors to shine in brief but memorable turns — perhaps the most bizarre being Billy Zane and Lori Petty as the performers in the drive-in feature.
Though aiming to create a feel for the locale, Singleton periodically loses sight of audiences unfamiliar with the colorful lingo. “Poetic Justice” has a lot to commend, but discipline is not high on the list. That flaw will be a major stumbling block toward wide appeal, and overseas prospects seem particularly remote.