"Do you care whether you live or die?"
Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) doesn't know how to answer that question amid the hell that he calls home in the Watts 'hood in Los Angeles. Like his "homeys," he's too scared to answer no and too pig-headed brave to answer yes. Eventually, Caine will realize that it really isn't his choice, after all.
If that all sounds bleak and uncompromising, then you have an idea of what faces moviegoers in Menace II Society, a first film by twin-brother directors Allan and Albert Hughes with a gritty power that illuminates a problem but doesn't try to educate anybody about solving it.
The Hughes brothers present a Watts where there is no such thing as a first offense, just the first time getting caught. Caine is a recent high school graduate on the edge; he can pull himself out of the mire or sink and suffocate in urban crime and vengeful violence. Turner gives a fine performance as Caine, with an expressionless face that still conveys the hatred and confusion boiling in his mind.
Menace II Society focuses on a long, hot summer that begins with a brutal double-murder. Caine and his friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) swagger into a store for beer, but hot-tempered O-Dog shoots the Korean shopkeepers and steals the day's receipts and a videotape of the bloody robbery.
"It's funny like that in Watts," Caine narrates. "You never know what's going to happen next."
But you can bet that it will be ultraviolent, gratuitously profane and irrevocably self-destructive in the Hughes brothers' film. Menace II Society fills the screen with every negative image we have learned to attribute to the inner city, from drugs to drive-by shootings. Unlike John Singleton's Boyz N The Hood, with its richly defined characters and hopeful family values, Menace II Society perpetuates the fears of Middle America; these kids are mostly without morals or redemption and their bloody deaths seem like mercy killings rather than tragedies.
Worst of all, the Hughes brothers don't believe that anything can change this downward spiral. Parents are ineffectual, especially the even-handed cool of Charles S. Dutton (Roc,) whose brand of common sense is ignored by the characters and the filmmakers. The police (led by Bill Duke's predatory performance) could help, but the Hugheses and screenwriter Tyger Williams inexplicably drop that investigation.
A final, hopeful chance is dashed in a barrage of gunfire when almost every character with a chance to escape Watts through love, faith or educational opportunities is gunned down. With few exceptions, only the most cold-blooded survive _ and that message isn't reassuring to a society at menace.
These crucial shortcomings are a shame, because the Hughes brothers obviously have cinematic talent to match their sociological insight. Menace II Society has a brutal vitality that keeps our eyes glued to the screen, even as we want to turn away in revulsion. The ensemble cast is uniformly good, with a heartbreaking performance by Jada Pinkett as a single mother who might be Caine's angel savior.
Some scenes are admittedly hard to shake off, days after a screening of Menace II Society. O-Dog's proud, repeated showings of the robbery/murder tape to his friends is callous and sickening. A carjacking that turns violent and a violent act of retribution at a hot dog stand creates palpable tension. Dutton and Duke's cameos carry more dramatic weight than most full-length films do in these high-concept days.
The Hugheses' endless no-win situations certainly have the shock of truth to them, but that isn't enough in troubled times when inner-city youth are at risk. Like the recent Bound by Honor or last year's Juice, Menace II Society spotlights only the criminals of the streets and not the survivors who prosper. People who live in places like Watts know the horrors; what they need is directions out of there that the Hugheses aren't providing.
Those who don't live in these mean streets will shake their heads and figure that Menace II Society merely reinforces their negative presumptions about minorities after all. Rather than being a positive step toward a solution, this one-sided, inflammatory film and its after-effects on impressionable youth may be yet another menace for American society to suffer.
Menace II Society
Directors: Allen and Albert Hughes
Cast: Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate, Bill Duke, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles S. Dutton
Screenplay: Tyger Williams from a story by Williams and the Hughes brothers
Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations
Running time: 97 min.