Mario Van Peebles is an interesting minor figure in contemporary moviemaking. A second-generation independent filmmaker — son of the iconoclastic Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Watermelon Man) — Van Peebles had an early hit with the 1991 crack-crime thriller New Jack City but has spent most of his time since balancing presumably bill-paying work as a mainstream television actor (Damages, Hellcats) and director (Law & Order, Lost) with more personal feature projects.
The most compelling of these include 2003's Baadasssss!, a fictionalized account of his father's experiences making Sweet Sweetback; 1995's Panther, a polemical account of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party; and 1993's Posse, a revisionist Western.
These are highly imperfect films but purposeful and engaging ones. Redemption Road, Van Peebles' latest feature as a director, is not in their class.
The film was originally titled Black, White, and Blues — which promised too much. The story pairs a white blues musician (co-writer and co-producer Morgan Simpson) with a black country music fan (Michael Clarke Duncan, in an awkward performance) for a buddy road-drama that travels from Austin, Texas, to Huntsville, Alabama, with stops in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The premise is in place for a provocative look at the interplay of race and music. An opening sequence depicts Simpson's Jefferson Bailey — who looks the part with his soul patch, black felt fedora, and sunglasses-at-night — playing standard bar blues to a rapturous, and apparently all-black, audience. Appropriately, this is a dream sequence. But the film doesn't have much to say on these subjects, and the portentous title Redemption Road better communicates the kind of life-lessons story arc on display.
This seems a particularly impersonal project for Van Peebles. The truer author here is Simpson, whose approach to the material is earnest and familiar, with loads of hackneyed blues philosophizing: "Country is sad; blues is tragic," "blues is like letting your tears flow," etc.
Though the film's characters travel across the lower South, Redemption Road was shot entirely in and around Nashville. You read that right: Redemption Road ' s producers came to Tennessee to film a blues movie and shot it in ... Nashville. Although Memphis is represented via a brief, charming turn from local musician "Blind Mississippi" Morris Cummings.
Redemption Road tries too hard to be colorful, casting Duncan as a Shakespeare-quoting, country-line-dancing recovering alcoholic with a pickup truck he calls Charlene and Tom Skerritt as a Yoda-like roadhouse owner named Santa. The rest of the cast is a grab-bag of familiar faces — 90210'er Luke Perry as a gun-toting cuckold, television actress Kiele Sanchez (the most natural performer in the film) as the hometown girl who got away, and Hustle & Flow's Taryn Manning as an underused love interest/source of trouble back in Austin.
The Blind Mississippi Morris cameo is illustrative of this stilted film's redeeming background pleasures. The elder Van Peebles makes an early appearance as a barkeep named Elmo, and it's nice to see him onscreen in any capacity. More significantly, there are brief performance scenes featuring a host of first-rate contemporary African-American blues performers, most notably Gary Clark Jr., Ruthie Foster, and Little Freddie King.
Opening Friday, August 26th