By Owen Gleiberman
November 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

There are highly celebrated playwrights — and more screenwriters than you could shake a boom mic at — who have never displayed the nimble ferocity of language that Laurence Fishburne does in Once in the Life. Fishburne wrote and directed this New York-set, three-lowlifes-stuck-in-a-tenement-hideout underworld movie, based on his 1995 Off Broadway play Riff Raff, and though the visual style is merely functional, his dialogue has a fiery urban-scuzz eloquence. The movie, despite some awkward, token violence (it’s about a drug theft gone awry), is talky in the best sense: The characters razz, deceive, and come clean with each other, shedding protective layers one insult and memory at a time.

The slangy anecdotal monologues in Once in the Life may have sounded more at home on stage, but they’re still actors’ candy, and the film showcases a trio of terrific performances. Fishburne has a blustery high time as 20/20 Mike, an overly impulsive hustler who claims to have eyes in the back of his head (but who can barely see what’s right in front of him), and Titus Welliver, as Mike’s junkie half brother, is like a testy hippie reptile in a cold sweat. The standout, however, is Oz’s Eamonn Walker as Tony, Mike’s old cellmate, who now has to execute him. Tony has moist, brother-love eyes and a heart of purest gunmetal, and when Walker fuses these two sides, you’re seeing gangster ruthlessness with all the glamour singed away. B