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‘Juice’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 17, 1992

The four young Harlem blacks in Ernest R. Dickerson's "Juice" aren't angels. They skip school, tussle in the street with their rivals, and casually shoplift. Still, they haven't crossed the line by getting into serious trouble. And, as we watch them in the film's lively opening scene, joshing with their parents and jockeying with their siblings for position in the bathroom, they seem much too centered in the lives of their families, too connected, to ever fall too far from grace.

Nothing, as we soon learn, could be further from the truth. Dickerson's point in this passable but rather routine picture is that no one is exempt from the spidery grip of frustrations brought on by poverty and a life of depressed opportunities; that, given these circumstances, anyone can pick up a gun as the only answer to his problems.

That's what happens in "Juice," and the repercussions are devastating. Bishop, Q, Raheem and Steel (Tupac Shakur, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain and Jermaine Hopkins) are lifelong friends, a brotherhood with an all-for-one approach to the streets. With the exception of Q, who has his heart set on being a deejay, none of them has the least notion of what to do with his life. Their days are mostly spent hanging out or running away either from the neighborhood's more dangerous thugs or the cops.

One day, though, they get tired of not having any control over their lives, buy a gun and decide to stick up the neighborhood market. (They're inspired, it seems, by the image of James Cagney going up in a blaze of glory in "White Heat.") It's an in-and-out job, a piece of cake, but still, Q isn't up for it. He's entered a deejay contest that's to take place that same night and he doesn't want to mess up his chances. But his friends won't let him off the hook, and, outvoted, he decides against his better judgment to go along.

When the heist goes bad -- and it goes worse than they ever could have dreamed -- it's Q, the most reluctant of the participants, who's left to pick up the shattered pieces. Clearly, he's not up to it, and the movie is most compelling when it is focused on this sweet-faced boy's panicky attempts to save his own skin. Unfortunately, Dickerson, who is best known as the cinematographer for Spike Lee's films and makes his directorial debut here, doesn't give the narrative much of a charge. The story, which is already over-familiar from other films about black life in big-city ghettos, isn't personal enough or rich enough in detail to merit our attention.

I'm sure Dickerson has strong feelings about inner-city problems, but if he does he can't convey them. Nor can he seem to give his story any momentum, or even establish any rhythm within scenes. The whole thing feels slack and lackadaisical. Whatever faults Spike Lee may have as a director, he can certainly make what he puts up on the screen come to life. Dickerson, it seems, should have at least learned that.

"Juice" is rated R for violence and language.

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