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Menace II Society.

"Menace II Society" (New Line Cinema) is a lot harder to like. No one will fail to be impressed with the raw talent of the 21-year-old twin directors, Allen and Albert Hughes, but after "Boyz N the Hood," "New Jack City" and "Straight Out of Brooklyn," many will ask themselves whether the young criminal ambience of African-American neighborhoods isn't already adequately done.

Well, yes and no. Despite the fact that "Menace" may be even more violent than the others, it's no exploitation film. I was repelled by the deadeningly repetitive and abusive language the black characters -- including the women -- direct at each other; it's an exaggeration but part of its rationale is to reveal the pathologically low self-image these young people possess.

The Hughes brothers have deliberately chosen an extreme version of their subject -- Caine, its teenage antihero, has childhood memories of watching his father (Sam Jackson) kill someone during a card game in his living room, and of his mother, who was a heroin addict. The directors want to emphasize the extreme pressures on a young man growing up in a community where a drive-by killing is always possible, and they present their episodic story without sentimentality or overt teaching.

Without asking for fake uplift, however, I must report that hopelessness isn't a foundation for a moving climax. This doesn't mean the Hughes' directorial intentions shouldn't be respected, especially since I believe most young African-Americans will prefer Marion Van Peebles' new black version of the standard Western, "Posse."

"Menace" makes good use of garish lighting, quick memory flashbacks and a soundtrack loaded with rap music that makes a statement even when difficult to follow.

Some people will want to leave after the frightening opening sequence in which Caine's sidekick, a grinning sociopath named O-Dog (all too convincingly played by Larenz Tate), elatedly shoots a Korean grocery store owner after a perceived insult. Caine is sickened by the wanton stupidity of the action, and frightened by O-Dog's delight in playing the video of the murder -- which he managed to steal from the store -- for the benefit of neighborhood homeboys. Caine knows this is a dangerous associate, but in his own way O-Dog is genuinely loyal.

There are unreal warnings from Caine's Bible-quoting grandfather, but they have no effect. When the grandfather asks him whether he wants to live or die, Caine hesitates, then admits, "I don't know."

The Hugheses are trying to make a contemporary "Scarface," but their central figure is not glamorized and has little sense of aspiration: Caine knows he's not going to be a mob leader. His softer side emerges when he plays with the little boy whose father, Pernell (Glenn Plummer), now serving a long jail sentence, had both befriended him and given him the wrong example.

Caine's only chance is to accept the love offered by Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), the boy's mother, who keeps urging Caine to make something of himself. At the end she asks him to go with her and the boy to Atlanta, where she has secured a job for herself and hopes to escape the dangers of the neighborhood.

Ronnie is an appealing character, a single mother who has matured in accepting the responsibility of raising her child -- some will even complain that she is too perfect. Significantly, the most powerful scene in the movie is the quietest, using almost no dialogue, just exchanges of looks: Ronnie and Caine visit Pernell in jail, and the latter encourages his younger friend to go with Ronnie to Atlanta. By that time, of course, the somber mood of "Menace" has been so well-established that it's hard to believe in this new beginning.

The Hugheses deserve the interest they are getting from Hollywood, but one wonders whether studio executives or other new backers will do anything but exploit the more showy aspects of their talent. It is unfair to blame such young men for confirming frightening stereotypes of African-American urban life -- they didn't create the racism that will read this movie as a representative picture -- but they need to deepen their sense of artistic responsibility. One would like to hope that some producer would assign them to direct a film based on one of the classics of 20th century black fiction, a story in which, despite all the odds, the African-American soul, with its profound aspirations, is given more adequate expression.
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jul 2, 1993
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