A film about racism that largely avoids the subject of racism and a story of police brutality that tiptoes around the subject of police brutality, "A Case of Deadly Force" certainly promises more than it delivers. Even so, it delivers a lot.

The CBS movie, at 9 tonight on Channel 9, is not being billed as a docudrama by the network (hardly anything is anymore), but it is based on a true story, and many real names are used. Shot in Boston where it occurred, the film recounts a grim, painful moment in the history of the Boston Police Department and the annals of American law enforcement.

It was in 1975 that James Bowden Jr., a black hospital worker, was gunned down by two white police officers who later claimed he had attempted to ram them with his car and that he was a prime suspect in the armed robbery of a convenience store a few hours earlier. The official police version was that they had killed Bowden in the line of duty, but it later evolved that the police had known all along they had the wrong man in their sights.

Tonight's movie is the story of how a courageous attorney, himself a former Boston cop, set the record straight, and won for Bowden's widow the first civil damages ever awarded in a U.S. court to the victim of a police killing. That one may know the outcome in advance doesn't lessen the cumulative impact of the courtroom drama; the case is so fraught with implications that it remains urgent and gripping.

You do have to read a bit into it, however, in terms of the larger topics of civil liberties and race relations in a modern American city. The writer, Dennis Nemec, has humanized the story to include superfluous details about the lawyer's relationships with his sons, three of them lawyers and the fourth the author of the book on which the film was based, and somewhat shortchanged the social significance of the case.

On the other hand, the youngest son, who early on voices resentment of his father's exhaustive dedication to legal matters, is later himself roughed up by the cops, who are not happy about the suit's having been brought and a shameful case being reopened. Even though it concentrates on personalities where it might have explored issues, the film seems thoughtful and honest.

Richard Crenna plays the lawyer, Lawrence O'Donnell Sr., and this is not the strongest performance of his career. His habit of looking shifty-eyed and sheepish, which worked fine in "The Flamingo Kid" and "Body Heat," does not suit the character of a gruff, dynamic lawyer. But Crenna is given sturdy assistance by John Shea as son Michael O'Donnell. Shea has a formidably fire-eyed persona that electrifies several scenes in need of electrification.

The most stringent performance of all is that of Lorraine Toussaint as the slain man's widow. Without stooping to pathos or the heady nobility of the victimized, she brings off a commanding portrait of righteous determination. We believe her when she says the point of the suit is not to log another gargantuan legal settlement but to clear her husband's name. Toussaint makes the widow at least as heroic as the lawyer.

Instructive on the ways in which a legal case is built, the film, directed by Michael Miller, follows the young lawyers around Boston as they gather depositions, search for witnesses and venture into neighborhoods they have good reason to consider hostile. The depiction of racial tensions in Boston is rather understated, but the film is more interested in celebrating the positivism of the legal and moral victory than in lamenting the malicious act that precipitated it.

Crenna's voice lacks fiber at times, and his facial gestures can seem furtive, but he, too, has his moments. "The public's going to know, and the city's going to pay," he barks at a sergeant with the police department's internal affairs unit. Later he tells his sons that his motive in taking the case has something to do with his own father's suicide years earlier; the connection is dubious but the speech is well delivered.

When he storms into the police department to protest the harassment of his son, Crenna is in good form, and there is something bracing and affirmative about the sight of the old lawyer and his gaggle of attorney-sons stalking through the city in pursuit of truth and justice. "Deadly Force" might almost have been called "Love Thy Lawyer." Even so, it's a darn good movie.