NICK NOLTE grabs "Weeds" by the roots and won't let go. His gut-strong performance as a convict in search of redemption makes you watch an otherwise mediocre yarn. You want to know how this lug with a heart makes out.

Doing life without possibility of parole, Lee Umstetter (Nolte) sits in San Quentin watching one cellmate after another leave for freedom. After seeing a performance of "Waiting For Godot," an idea occurs to him. He gorges on Nietzsche and Russian writers, writes a fast play and, hustling up a cast of cons with earned stripes in murder, extortion and exhibitionism, among other things, he puts it on in the prison auditorium.

His play is amateurish and pretentious (French accents, music, a little existentialism). But it works because of the firsthand force of the prisoners' performances. And it draws a rave review from Lillian Bingington, a food/drama critic. Umstetter and Bingington (Rita Taggert) correspond, and before you can say Jack Henry Abbott, she's sprung him with a governor's pardon.

Umstetter goes for a new goal -- to reach out to non-prison audiences and, er, make it to Broadway. Reassembling the now-alumni cast, he finds many of them are still a little shy of rehabilitation. One gets violently jealous about a college groupie, another is a nervous wreck onstage and can't kick his shoplifting habit. Oh, and most of them are armed.

A big secret comes out. It seems stores weren't the only thing Umstetter robbed. He has to rewrite the play before anyone shouts "Plagiarism!" Then there's a lover's tiff with Lillian, a tragic road accident, a deus ex maximum security kinda event with a prison riot . . .

But forget all that. John ("Bang The Drum Slowly") Hancock's "Weeds," if it's anything at all, is about Umstetter's determined climb from gutter to gallery; read Hell to Heaven, of course. And Nolte can't be extolled enough for making you feel every part of the struggle -- you gulp for him all the way. There's one move he makes that's almost worth the price of admission. When his buddy Navarro (a very respectable John Toles-Bey), leaves jail and says goodbye -- probably for the last time -- Nolte turns, hunches his shoulders with a resignation that's bleak tender and tough all at once, and heads back to his cell. You realize it's a long way from there to anywhere.

WEEDS (R) -- At area theaters.