By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 07, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

”What you found was quiet in a world of thunder,” Marti (Lisa Carson), a gang leader’s girlfriend, assures Lyric (Jada Pinkett), the gang leader’s sister, about Lyric’s love for Jason (Allen Payne), the upstanding hero of Jason’s Lyric. Tony and Maria might have put it differently in West Side Story, but the two couples could both sing the lyrics to ”Somewhere”: The theme of purifying, redemptive love blooming amid a wreckage of brotherly rivalry and neighborly warfare is as old — and as potentially moving — as any great plot in Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek tragedy. This violent love story, however, set in a tawny-colored inner-city Houston and directed by first-timer Doug McHenry from a script by Bobby Smith Jr., is hampered by the very thing that should distinguish it: The movie is so dense with big themes strung together that character development suffers. And the emotional sum is less than the interconnection of its Tragedy 101 parts.

What’s most modern in this old-fashioned story are the bloody spurts of remorseless violence, and the occasional depictions of sex more graphic, forsooth, than anything Romeo ever did to Juliet. Bokeem Woodbine (Crooklyn, HBO’s Strapped), in particular, is powerful as Jason’s younger brother, Joshua, who was an angry child when their father — an abusive, alcoholic, broken Vietnam vet (played by the always interesting Forest Whitaker) — was shot while beating up their hardworking mother. Early in the movie, he emerges from a prison stint even angrier and more entwined in Jason’s life than ever.

But what’s old — as in clichéd — is McHenry’s depiction of the love between Jason and Lyric as a picture-perfect romance that inspires pretty, petite Pinkett (Menace II Society, NBC’s A Different World) to wear floaty dresses out of a perfume ad and quote the poetry of John Donne to handsome, muscled Payne (The Cosby Show, New Jack City). The literacy is appreciated — but we never learn, really, what motivates these two sweethearts or how they came to want something more out of life than their wayward siblings did. (Plus, I kept waiting for Jason to burst into a verse or two of ”Maria.”) As a result, the love-hate between Jason and Joshua in Jason’s Lyric is ultimately a far more compelling story line than the relationship between Jason and Lyric. This is fine, Cain and Abel-wise. But it’s a problem when so much is riding on Romeo’s hooking up with Juliet, movie-wise. C