"Fresh" is an odd synthesis of miracle and atrocity. It comes in two halves: The first is a formal work of empathetic anthropology that takes us places we've never been and makes us care about people we've never met, and the second is a fairly routine vendetta picture, crass, manipulative and unbelievable.
As imagined by writer-director Boaz Yakin, Fresh (Sean Nelson) is a wild boy of the streets, an amalgam of angelic innocence and drop-dead, lion-eyed smarts. He's been born to the life in an urban jungle, and with his high-IQ-propelled quick take on things, has made himself invaluable to the powers that run the 'hood. His is a life of hustling, drug dealing, rapid calculation of odds, leverage and instinct. He has a taste of nearly every scam that's going down.
However Yakin, who is white, has learned of such doings, he has learned them well. He makes us feel we're in the cribs and crack factories and makes us feel we're eavesdropping as the dealers enter a mercantile tradition more daunting than the diamond trade, putting together complex financial transactions while maintaining a network of treaties more extensive than the Balkans before World War I.
In fact, one of the amazing discoveries "Fresh" offers is that far from the Dodge City my-gun-is-quick image of the inner city, it's actually a place of morally aberrant but nevertheless sophisticated rules of engagement; codicils cover everything, and life, more than gunbattle after gunbattle, is a process of negotiation.
There's no better player in this world than Fresh, who is shrewdly observant and knows exactly when to show and when to fold, particularly as he delicately maneuvers between the three competing drug organizations that occupy the neighborhood. Think of him as a Metternich without portfolio on the mean streets, representing a nation of two -- himself and his sister (N'Bushe Wright, who is being kept by a drug dealer).
What's so astringent about all this is that through it all, Fresh remains a little boy -- he's 12. He has room in his complex heart to begin a fumbling courtship with a young woman, he works hard to keep his studies up, he loves TV, he tries to be a good child in the home where he lives, with his aunt and 11 cousins.
It's a truly tragic image: a young man with so much who is so compartmentalized by the demands upon him, forced to be so many things. He's had to put aside childish things years before he should have, though in his heart of hearts, he clings to their shreds.
So far, so great. The movie, which won the 1994 Sundance Film Festival trophy award, really has a power and a wisdom to it far beyond even the best of the genre so far, the Hughes brothers' brilliant "Menace II Society." But one begins to suspect a melodramatic agenda when Fresh's final gift is factored in: It turns out that under the tutelage of his estranged but brilliant father (Samuel L. Jackson), he's a burgeoning speed-chess player.
This seems a bit much. To begin with, chess as metaphor for tactical thinking is a spy-novel trope that's been around since the last century, and it has an anachronistic feeling right off the top. It's something out of the works of John Buchan or Eric Ambler, but sure enough, Yakin uses it without irony as a straight analogue to the complex set of moves, countermoves that set up the movie's suddenly preposterous endgame. It feels rushed and sudden, rather than organic. It's an endgame without a gambit.
As Yakin has it, Fresh reaches a point where the dealers have too much: his sister, impunity from the law, the blood of the innocent on their hands, and no justice available (the police are clueless fools). So he sets out to bring them down, but lacking the killer's spirit, the carnage he unleashes is intellectual rather than bloody.
The end is as delicately plotted as anything in John le Carre. Fresh uses his chess gifts to engineer a triple coup, playing mob against mob and the police against them all. A sacrifice master, he coldly sets up one of his peers for assassination to advance his subtle plan. His best weapon is his youth. The gangsters -- Giancarlo Esposito is the most vivid -- cannot believe that behind that angelic face lurks the mind of a Colonel Karla of Red Intelligence or a Bobby Fischer of the gutters.
The movie's two instincts are at complete odds with each other. The first is to portray with compassion and understanding a young man of great gifts who is twisted by a cruel society into childhood's end. The second is to provide a rousing goose of vigilante justice more appropriate to the "Death Wish" films. How much better if Yakin had made up his mind; the movie wouldn't feel so split.
Starring Sean Nelson and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Boaz Yakin
Released by Miramax