Taye Diggs plays the father of a teenage boy shot to death by policemen in Wes Miller’s thriller, which also features John Cusack and George Lopez.

Hot-button social issues are treated in distressingly cursory fashion in Wes Miller’s thriller begging a few questions. Such as, what made the filmmaker think that George Lopez would be a credible action hero? And what the hell happened to John Cusack’s career? Starring Taye Diggs as a judge who goes all Death Wish after his teenage son is killed by cops, River Runs Red is neither substantive nor thrilling enough to prove satisfying.

A wholly unnecessary prologue to the main story shows Diggs’ character, Charles, spending quality time with his policewoman wife Eve (Jennifer Tao) and preteen son TJ and later embarrassing himself in a law school classroom. Cut to years later, when Charles is a respected judge, the only African-American in his town, looking forward to his now-grown son (Joseph Belk) entering the police academy.

When TJ is pulled over by a pair of cops after one of them mistakenly takes his gesture of respect for flipping him off, the ensuing confrontation results in them shooting him dead when they think he’s reaching for a gun. The more hot-headed of the two (Gianni Capaldi, oozing sleaze) covers up the crime by planting a gun near the victim’s body. His partner (Luke Hemsworth), although clearly agonized with guilt, goes along.

TJ’s grieving parents desperately attempt to find out what really happened to their son, with Eve unable to mask her fury and Charles taking a more diplomatic approach as he reaches out to the mayor and police chief who express sympathy but say there’s little they can do. He also seeks solace from his friend Horace (Cusack), a police detective whose constant hangdog expression signifies he’s seen it all before.

When Charles digs deeper into the police officers’ past he discovers that they’ve killed other young men under strangely similar circumstances, including virtually identical incriminating guns. He seeks out the father of one of them, Javier (Lopez), a garage owner who initially treats him with hostility and suspicion. But the two men eventually forge a bond and decide to work together to get revenge for their sons’ deaths by taking violent matters into their own hands.

River Runs Red starts out strongly with its sober depiction of both the sort of police shooting of an unarmed young black man that has become tragically common and the bureaucratic cover-up that ensues. But it loses credibility the longer it goes on, and its veering into violent revenge-thriller territory proves unconvincing. The underplaying Diggs, whose natural gravitas is effective in such scenes as when his judge displays compassion for the downtrodden on the bench, however never displays the sort of barely suppressed, uncontrollable rage that would suggest his turning vigilante. Lopez tries to compensate by going over the top by comparison and is hardly convincing beating up men half his age.

The film’s third act, featuring standard-issue gunfights and car chases, is too poorly staged to be remotely exciting. And while Cusack delivers a respectable performance, his character is so underwritten and extraneous that one wonders why he’s even in the film other than to beef up VOD receipts.

Subject matter this potent deserves far more measured and sophisticated treatment than it receives in this melodramatic exercise featuring an overbearing musical score and cliched plot mechanics.

Production companies: Sweet Unknown Studios, Optimad Entertainment Media, Premiere Picture, Project Z Entertainment, Starring Entertainment
Distributor: Cinedigm
Cast: Taye Diggs, George Lopez, Luke Hemsworth, Gianni Capaldi, Jennifer Tao, RJ Mitte, John Cusack
Director-screenwriter: Wes Miller
Producers: Leonard Ohaebosim, Curtis Nichouls, James T. Bruce IV, Sasha Yelaun, Philip B. Godfine, Jaqueline Fleming, Rachel Ryling
Executive producers: Taye Diggs, Catherine Wang, Jennifer Tao, Geneva Wasserman, David Gilbery, Charles Dorfman, Shaun Sanghani, Damiano Tucci, Danny Chan, Kevin Murray, James Morrow, DJ Dodd, Rodney James, Alan Pao, Luke Daniels, Brandon Cobb, BJ Fulton
Directors of photography: Michael Brouphy, Egor Povolotskiy
Production designer: Sharon Roggio
Editor: Rowan Maher
Composer: Sid De La Cruz
Costume designers: Eunice Jera Lee, Genna Yussman
Casting: Jaimie Beebe

94 minutes