A grim, nihilistic trip to the inner city is in store for the stout-hearted who enter into New Line’s “Menace II Society.” Fierce, violent and searing in its observation, the film makes previous excursions seem like a stroll through the park.
The unrelenting tale marks a dynamic debut for brothers Allen and Albert Hughes, and the film premieres as part of Cannes’ Directors Fortnight. Certain to be the subject of heated debate, it has both ethnic and highbrow appeal and should carvequite a niche for itself in the marketplace.
While commercial prospects don’t compare to “Boyz N the Hood,””Menace” should readily escape the ghetto of specialized minority films and play well in urban areas.
The story centers on Caine (Tyrin Turner), a black teenager who grew up amid drugs and guns. His parents were undone by the lifestyle, and Caine lives with grandparents who are unable to keep him on a straight path. In the opening moments he witnesses his friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) murder an Asian shopkeeper and his wife for cheap change and a glancing insult. There’s no holding back in this screen encounter.
Caine, O-Dog, Sharif (Vonte Sweet) and Stacy (Ryan Williams) hang together in the brutal environment of contemporary Watts. They sell drugs, get involved in carjacking and wreak violent retribution on those who cross their path. The overall picture is desperate and angry.
Nonetheless, there are glimmers of hope. Caine is urged to join Stacy, whose football scholarship will take him far from the ‘hood, to Kansas. His sometime girlfriend, Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), encourages him to join her and her young son and go to Atlanta. And Sharif’s father, Mr. Butler (Charles Dutton), a teacher, extols the virtues of education in a practical, unsermonizing manner.
The problem is, Caine is numb and crippled from the pain of his upbringing. Though he’d probably deny it, he’s a fatalist, aware that he’s betting against the house.
Like the unfortunate Korean couple, he will eventually do the wrong thing at the wrong time and wind up a casualty. His attitudes toward drugs, violence, even women form the basis of an inevitable tragedy.
The unsparing nature of the portrait is ironically relieved by its seeming authenticity. Working from a script by Tyger Williams, the Hughes brothers eschew most stylistic flourishes and get right down to the nitty gritty. Yet there’s an immediate, visceral poetry to the images.
Though such familiar faces as Dutton and Bill Duke pop up in cameos, the film is carried by a large cast of newcomers. Turner, in the lead, has a natural, unflashy ease which keeps you watching when better judgment suggests you look away. Also noteworthy are Tate as the hair-trigger O-Dog and Pinkett as the woman who’s been through it and wants to push on.
Frank in its language and its depiction of violence, “Menace II Society” suggests a bright future for the filmmakers and their collaborators in front of and behind the camera. It’s impossible to imagine being unshaken by the vision of these tyro talents.