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‘Menace II Society’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 28, 1993

Like a flipped coin spinning through the air -- with both sides simultaneously visible -- "Menace II Society" is a hypnotic juxtaposition. It's maddening and enlivening. It's brilliant and tacky. It's funny and horrifying. It will gratify the worst elements in the crowd; it will engage the very best.

It's about the bloodiest summer in the life of Caine (Tyrin Turner), who has managed to graduate from high school between entreaties to ride the streets with loose-cannon homeboy O-Dog (Larenz Tate) and other friends.

Los Angeles is gradually sucking him into a vortex of crime, while he is tugged toward the positive by his religious grandparents and Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), a friend whose jailed boyfriend, Pernell (Glenn Plummer), was Caine's streetwise mentor. Will Caine escape to peaceful Atlanta with Ronnie and her child, or will he submit to the doomed legacy left him by his dead, junkie parents?

Another grim lesson from the 'hood, "Menace" is immediately imitative, another neo-blaxploitation dirge to oppressed black men. Once again, youths in face masks plug each other full of holes, sell drugs and run away from "bitches" they've impregnated. And, in the shocker opening scene (which got them all a-flutter at Cannes this year), O-Dog executes a Korean grocer for asking that he pay for his drink before draining it.

"O-Dog was America's nightmare," says Caine in his narrative voice-over. "Young, black and didn't give a {expletive}."

Even in a genre that embraces violence, "Menace" is particularly gruesome and sardonic -- a sort of "Blackfellas." Joking before, during and after slayings is commonplace. After one murder, the killer holds up the victim's dropped hamburger and offers it to his shocked friends.

As usual, pounding rap wraps around these impulsive bloodlettings like battle music. Its rhythms forgive, justify and heighten the violence. When you lurch forward in your seat, appalled at the latest point-blank gunshot through the head, the music guides you back again, soothes you into accepting. Sit back and enjoy, it says . . . .

Yet "Menace" may just be the best in its genre. It's an explosive debut for Albert and Allen Hughes, 21-year-old black American-Armenian twin brothers brought up on MTV and the bloody cult movie "Scarface." They have achieved what far greater artists dream of: created something that perpetuates heated debate. They have found their target -- the troubled, angry mental landscape of the young, black mind -- and hit it dead on.

The Hughes brothers have also created their own spirited style. The story starts with black-and-white footage of the Watts riots in 1965 (the movie's narrative trigger to everything), moves through plush-red, claustrophobic backrooms of the 1970s, where slurry junkies play card games and shoot up, then slides blinkingly into the bright blight of the L.A. ghettoscape.

The filmmakers -- scriptwriter Tyger Williams included -- are also reasonably deft about the voices of admonishment, which come from head-shaking Tyrin Turner, white-Christ-generation grandparents Arnold Johnson and Marilyn Coleman, and been-there veterans Charles S. Dutton and Glenn Plummer.

If these voices (and therefore the movie) caution against killing, it's not just because Exodus says it ain't cool. It's also because so many have fallen and because poverty-induced crime plays into the state's oppressive hands. "Menace" is entertainment and radical street preaching, all rolled into one. If it tells black kids not to try this at home, it also revels cinematically in blam-blam-you're-dead. This is what makes the movie maddening -- and what gives it strength.

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