By Ken Tucker
Updated October 23, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

TV viewers were supposed to have been shown In the Line of Duty: Street War in May, but NBC and the producers of this made-for-television movie pulled it in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. It was apparently thought that Street War‘s depiction of African-American crack dealers fighting with police on blighted city streets might be considered incendiary and exploitive.

In fact, the opposite is true. Although it’s offered as a sharp action film, Street War is one of the very few television dramas that allows for the full complexity of contemporary urban life — it suggests the roots of the problems that exploded during the L.A. riots.

In Street War, New Jack City‘s Mario Van Peebles and China Beach‘s Michael Boatman star as New York patrolmen whose beat is an impoverished Brooklyn housing development. Here, a small crack factory is overseen by a well- dressed, wide-grinning thug named Justice Butler (Courtney Vance of the Broadway play Fences), and Street War shows us the way this sort of drug running poisons an entire community. Butler justifies his business by talking about how he provides employment for his ”brothers and sisters,” and insists that what he’s doing is ”selling this stuff to people that’s gonna kill themselves anyway.”

But Butler’s excuses don’t cut any ice with Van Peebles’ Raymond Williamson and Boatman’s Robert Dayton; before they were cops, they were kids who lived in these apartments, and they know that, as poor as they were, life was once better here. So does Dan Reilly, a homicide detective, played by Peter Boyle (The Dream Team), who patrolled this development as a beat cop two decades earlier. Looking at the crumbling tenements and the scorched earth surrounding them, Reilly remembers when these were gleaming buildings with ”brand-new, federally funded Kentucky bluegrass lawns” — something Williamson and Dayton are too young to recall.

Street War — ”inspired,” NBC says, ”by a true story” — is the fifth In the Line of Duty TV movie, and like its predecessors, it’s a lean, hard-boiled drama. Reilly’s partner in the homicide department, Victor Tomasino, is played by Ray Sharkey. A tough customer who interrogates a drug runner with snappy lines like, ”You came in here with a pretty face and a lotta information, and you’re not leaving with both of them,” Tomasino is also a considerably less understanding fellow than Reilly is; when Tomasino rails against ”the animals” on the streets, it’s clear he means black people.

Street War, in short, lets everyone have his say. The movie, written by T.S. Cook (The China Syndrome) and directed by Dick Lowry, tells the stories of its four law-enforcement heroes, artfully contrasting the lives and beliefs of two young black cops with those of two middle-aged white cops. It’s not giving anything away to say that, early on in the film, Williamson is killed in a chance encounter with Butler. This event is what sets the ”street war” in motion. Is this TV movie violent? You bet — but it has to be, to jolt us with the harsh reality of the brutal ways lives can be wasted. A-