Redemption Road (PG-13) (91 min.) — Jefferson Bailey has plenty of reasons to sing the blues, starting with the fact that he's too stage-frightened to perform in front of audiences. He's an alcoholic debt-dodger with a cuckolded husband on his tail and an ex-girlfriend on his mind. Daddy died tragically years ago. Now a hulking stranger wants Jefferson to return to Huntsville, Ala., where granddaddy died and probably left next to nothing in the will.
Like many blues songs, Redemption Road follows the same repetitive progression of chords, this time emotional. When guessing what's coming isn't easy, it can be awkward, especially when Jefferson obtains his inheritance and gets a hyper-coincidental surprise. Of course there's redemption at the end of Jefferson's road trip, and not only for himself, a fact tipped off early if you're paying attention.
This is how Redemption Road nearly undermines itself. Director Mario Van Peebles made a movie that's always interesting, especially when digging into smoky juke joints, where criminally obscure blues artists wail onstage. Cinematographer Matthew Irving regularly finds evocative backdrops around Nashville, which sit in for Huntsville and Austin, Texas. Tree Adams' musical arrangements and the performances are worth a search on iTunes.
The performances are spot-on, with former Tampa resident Morgan Simpson scripting a showcase for himself as Jefferson, and Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) as the enigmatic stranger, proving again that he's more than just a not-so-pretty face atop an intimidating body. There's also a supple supporting turn by Tom Skerritt as a bar owner pulling the strings for Jefferson's salvation.
But it's the screenplay's stacking of overused themes like so many dominoes that prevents Van Peebles from making a truly excellent film. The look and vibe are right, but the story needs a crazier heart. There isn't a moment in Redemption Road when you feel like walking out; nor do you take the finished film with you. It's a solid piece of work, recycled to a degree, but satisfying.
If the movie sounds familiar, know that Redemption Road carried the title Black, White and Blues while making the festival rounds last year. The film's Tampa connections — Simpson and producers Charlie Poe and Jeff Balis are Plant High School graduates — got us a spot among eight U.S. cities in a limited release. B (Veterans 24 in Tampa)
Steve Persall, Times film critic