The world may not need and in fact may detest it, but it is undeniably here and in your face: a cool examination of hard-core urban gunfighter culture, African-American-style, Los Angeles-style.
"Menace II Society," which opens today, shows us a young man with nothing to lose and very little invested in the structures around him. His father and mother were criminals and junkies; he was raised by grandparents who were unable to speak his language. No institution in society has reached him or cares about him. He is not a bad youth, certainly not an evil one, and no matter how hard you may want to hate him, you will not. He just did what there was to do when living by the code of the time and place, which was to pull the trigger and to face, in the end, NTC the ultimate trajectory of the bullet: Those who shoot oh-so-often get shot.
This is extremely grim stuff, but what's extraordinary about 'Menace II Society" is the aplomb with which its 21-year-old twin brother directors Albert and Allen Hughes send it sailing along. They're born filmmakers, who know where to put the camera, how to edit kinetic whirligigs of action and mayhem. In fact, I was reminded (perhaps because I saw the film in France) of Simone Weil's brilliant description of another generation's trial by combat, Homer's "Iliad." She called that story of men at war a "tone-poem of force," and that's exactly what "Menace II Society" is.
But the Hughes brothers know that other thing too, which can't be taught: how to get under the skin. The lives they describe seem in the beginning utterly marginal and deeply frightening to society; in the end, when death comes, you feel that a real life has been lost. It ain't just the news with another dead kid under a sheet and then on to the sports.
The movie begins horribly. Two black teens in a Korean grocery, buying beer. The hostility between them and the grocer and his wife is frightfully real. Then it seems over, and as the two young men leave, the grocer utters an insult under his breath. The fragility of the moment collapses into shards and the most lost of the young men pulls his Glock and in 10 seconds has committed an atrocity for nothing, before the unbelieving eyes of his friend. That's how we meet Caine and O-Dog.
Caine (Tyrin Turner in a brilliant performance) is dismayed; he never wanted to kill anyone, and now he's an accessory. O-Dog (Larenz Tate in a terrifying and brilliant performance) has basically forgotten about it 10 minutes later.
The movie follows as Caine tries to adjust to this new state of affairs. He's the focal point, a smart brave youngster who really doesn't seem to have much luck. But it is not the Hugheses' purpose to argue environmental determinism. Though they're mercilessly clear in documenting Caine's drift toward murder, a process in which he doesn't exactly wrestle with his conscience, they're also sure to give him a chance. He gets to make a choice, as represented by Ronnie (played sweetly by former Baltimorean Jada Pinkett). Ronnie knows that the hood of Watts has become the city of death. She's not a sociologist, interpreting trends in American society as they affect the minority impoverished; she just knows that 9mm hollow-points are unkind to children and other living things, and manages to work her way out with her son. She wants Caine to go.
But the Hugheses show us how tough a fight that is, even as they're describing a society that has not gone to the dogs but to the guns, where the most casual social friction may explode into surrealistic violence at any moment. It's tough stuff. Too many young men who should be playing ball and worrying about dates are left lying in the gutter, gagging on the bitter phlegm of their own blood. It's a movie that takes you where you might not want to go, and makes you care about hell in a very small place.
"Menace II Society"
Starring Tyrin Turner and Jada Pinkett
Directed by the Hughes Brothers
Released by New Line