A teen is pulled between positive and negative influences in early 90's Watts.
Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes
Starring Tyrin Turner, Larenz Tate, and Jada Pinkett
Review by Jon Kissel
As the film continues, it reconstructs the opening scene. Situations that could be easily avoided or defused escalate and escalate until someone’s lying dead on the ground. Watts in the early 90’s is depicted as an honor culture, where one’s life is not more valuable than one’s pride. Backing down is so unthinkable for the characters that we never see anyone actually do it. This applies to friends as much as it does to strangers, and the prospect of getting someone else caught in the crossfire doesn’t matter either. The keeping up of a hard front extends beyond life or death situations, as we see O-Dog and Caine rib each other over their reactions when Caine gets shot in the shoulder. Caine’s pain becomes a source of weakness, as does the fear that comes from O-Dog having to watch his friend die in his arms. Both are vulnerable in the moment when Caine is messily spitting blood, but they have to rewrite it as a lapse instead of embracing it as a realization that Caine and O-Dog would both prefer for themselves and each other to be alive rather than dead.
Caine is explicitly posed that question at a late point, and he’s noncommittal. His actions don’t provide evidence of the answer, as he sleepwalks towards his death or imprisonment while bumping into reasons to stay alive. The security footage from the opening murder spends the film in O-Dog’s possession, and he loves to show it to their crew, going so far as to make copies for them. What eventually happens is the most predictable and natural thing within the rules of the world, where Caine will be provoked and win a fight and will then immediately be turned in for revenge. At the same time, a random hookup and Caine’s dismissal of the girl sets a different doomsday clock moving forward. Caine understands that the footage is a major problem, but the hookup is something that creeps up on him. In the meantime, his relationship with his mentor Pernell (Glenn Plummer) and Pernell’s ex-girlfriend Ronnie (Jada Pinkett) and their young son progresses to the point that the incarcerated Pernell gives Caine his blessing to be with Ronnie and raise his son. If Ronnie was out of the picture, his friend Sharif (Vonte Sweet) would gladly bring Caine with him on a move to Kansas. The fact that Caine has all these outs makes the ending all the more tragic. He dies shortly after coming to the realization that he does want to live, but he’s been in for too long.
There is an issue in this push and pull for Caine, in that everyone knows what he wants to choose except him. This isn’t Precious, wallowing in miserabilist poverty porn that leaves Caine with no choice but to sell drugs and steal cars. He’s not supporting anyone, and his basic needs are met. Instead, Caine makes choices because he thinks he needs to fulfill certain expectations. He needs a car, but the car has to have rims. He needs women on the side, chains, and to put cash in Ronnie’s hand even though she doesn’t ask for it. He does all this joylessly, but he’s open and capable of finding meaning in encounters with would-be mentors who preach a different way. If he was more like O-Dog, living into the dead-eyed, hair-trigger stereotype of Hillary Clinton’s superpredator, he’d be unreachable because he’d think his life is already good, as it seems O-Dog does. Instead, Caine knows that he’s unhappy even if he can’t acknowledge it, and the journey of the film is to realize that before it’s too late.
This is a daring and impressive film, but it would be improved with a second pass at the narration. Menace isn’t a film with unnecessary narration, as Caine can’t otherwise express himself honestly, but it does have too much. Exacerbated by editing that flies over certain key events, the film exemplifies the worst of telling instead of showing. The primary offender is when Caine and a friend are beaten by the police and dumped in Latino territory. Menace flies over this anecdote, but it has the potential to be a major turning point. Both Caine and the cops assume the worst, that they’ll be murdered for being caught in the wrong place. Instead, they’re taken to the hospital in voiceover. Why this scene doesn’t play out in full is a mystery. It represents a broadening of Caine’s world, that artificial lines can be easily stepped over, and that if people don’t act the worst way possible in his neighborhood, they might not act that way in Kansas or Atlanta. What’s missing from his community is solidarity, and he just encountered some.
Including a more optimistic scene like that would’ve conflicted with the world the Hughes Brothers want to depict, where the characters on the way out are cruelly killed while a psychopath like O-Dog is left unscathed, at least for the moment. The Hughes’ version of Watts feels hopeless, with nowhere to hide and no joy to be found even within the crew at the center. If you can beat a friend within an inch of his life, or shoot him at a card table, the guard is always up. At least you can take comfort that your violent death will be avenged in an endless cycle of reprisal killings. Juice comes out around this time and depicts similarly broken characters of the same general age on the opposite side of the country. America’s Worst Fear, per Caine in reference to O-Dog, is a year away from a serious federal crackdown, and movies like Juice and Menace can’t help but make me queasy as a media validation of the 1994 Crime Bill. It’s an added wrinkle to a film I’ve kept thinking about for a long time after I’ve watched it, and a film that sticks with the viewer in whatever capacity can’t be denied. B+