Completed nearly three years ago, Tim Blake Nelson's O, a provocative modernization of Shakespeare's Othello, was in the editing process when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on Columbine High School. In the rush to account for the incident, lawmakers and professional moralists looked to their favorite target, the entertainment industry, for easy answers, pinning the blame on the stylized mayhem of The Basketball Diaries and Marilyn Manson records. As part of the predictable ritual of scapegoating and appeasement that followed, Hollywood tinkered with the violent teen-oriented entertainment still in the pipeline, dumping some films, trimming others, and even changing the title of Sugar & Spice (originally Sugar & Spice & Semiautomatics). But, just as Henry & June got the worst of the NC-17 controversy, O was punished for its seriousness and maturity, and was eventually dropped by the skittish Miramax after several release dates were announced and retracted. Now that it's finally found its way into theaters, the film's ill fortune may have suddenly reversed, thanks to the escalating careers of young stars Julia Stiles and Josh Hartnett, as well as the timelessness of Shakespeare's story. Smartly conceptualized by screenwriter Brad Kaaya, O moves the play to a nearly all-white private high school in Charleston, South Carolina, where the black hero is the heavily recruited star guard for the basketball team. Replacing Shakespeare's original dialogue with contemporary lingo and altering the characters' names accordingly, Kaaya keeps the integrity of the plot intact, providing a solid backbone to shoulder the film's few major missteps. Mekhi Phifer has a compact, forceful presence as Othello (renamed "Odin"), an arrow-straight student and basketball phenomenon who's worshipped by his coach (Martin Sheen) and teammates, a fact that draws the jealous ire of the coach's sinister son (Hartnett, in the Iago, or "Hugo," role). To exact his petty revenge, Iago tries to sabotage Othello's relationship with Stiles' Desdemona ("Desi"), the headmaster's daughter, but his behind-the-scenes scheming leads to ever more tragic consequences. If nothing else, the decision to center the action on a high-school basketball team in the South adds exceptional resonance to the story, drawing out the original work's inherent racial and sexual tensions. But Nelson and Kaaya make a crucial mistake by backing away from the blank, soulless nature of Iago's evil, perfectly suggested by Hartnett's shadowy eyes, and giving him more conventional pop-psych motivations. (The less said about the laughable hawk metaphor, the better.) In spite of this flaw, O handles its incendiary premise with intelligence and tact, and its connections to Columbine, though unintended, are nonetheless instructive. Tempting as it might be to blame teen violence on the movies, Shakespeare knows more about human nature than the average congressman does.