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Menace II Society

tn_menaceiisocietyMENACE II SOCIETY is generally considered the best and most hardcore of the ’90s “hood movies.” BOYZ N THE HOOD (released almost 2 years earlier) was already controversial and blamed for violence near theaters  despite its unmistakable Increase the Peace preachiness. Now here comes this lower budget movie with more violence, more anti-social behavior, more expectation of the audience to know right from wrong, and no Huxtable sweaters, football or Stanley Clarke fusion to help the medicine go down. The “nice kid” in this one is a drug dealer who, when he gets a call from a girl telling him she’s pregnant with his baby, says “Look, I ain’t got time for this. Peace.”

It’s narrated by that kid from Watts, Caine (Tyrin Turner, PANTHER), telling the story of his summer after graduating from high school. It starts with him and his friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate, WAIST DEEP) going into a mini-mart for 40s and getting into an argument with the Asian couple who run it (June Kyoto Lu [who was in CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER!] and Toshi Toda [LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA]). Caine and O-Dog are being jerks, opening the bottles before paying for them, even though they’re under 21 and oughta be grateful that these people are gonna sell it to them in the first place. Caine is kinda laughing it off but then fuckin O-Dog decides to shoot and kill the couple. He takes the security tape and spends the summer showing it to all his buddies like it’s a funny Jackass video or something.

This shows you the relationship between these two. Caine knows it’s stupid to be showing it to people, and he complains about it every time, but he never makes him stop.

The climax of BOYZ is a friend gets killed and Doughboy goes to shoot the guys that did it outside of a burger place. Here that happens in the first act – Caine’s cousin Harold is killed by carjackers, so Caine retaliates outside of a chicken place. Like Doughboy he’s not sure how he feels about being a killer, but I don’t think it bothers him nearly as much. He pretends to be nicer than Doughboy but I think he has a smaller heart.

mp_menaceiisocietyThere are plenty of people trying to send Caine on an Abel path. He lives with his grandparents, and they try to steer him right, but they’re not Furious enough to make an impact. Caine and O-Dog scoff at their Christian preachings, with no self-awareness about the fact that they wear crosses around their necks every day, the posers. From the Muslim side they have their “ex-knucklehead” friend Sharif (Vonte Sweet, also in BOYZ) always abstaining and guilting them, and they keep him around but they make fun of him for it. And Sharif’s dad Mr. Butler (Charles S. Dutton, SURVIVING THE GAME) is sort of the Furious Styles of the movie, or the Charles S. Dutton character anyway. He’s a coach who they all respect who encourages Caine to move to fucking Kansas. And Caine does see the value of getting away from it all and starting fresh, but… you know. Kansas? Come on.

Most importantly there’s Ronnie (Jada Pinkett, SET IT OFF), a smart single mother who Caine gives money to and checks in on for his o.g. friend Pernell (Glenn Plummer, SPEED 1-2) ’cause he’s in prison. He says Pernell was a father figure to him, but all we see is he gave him his first taste of alcohol and let him hold a gun for the first time. It was on the stoop during a party and he was in footie pajamas. Now Pernell and Jada’s son is that age, and Caine’s too dumb to want to break the chain, he lets him hold his gun while they’re playing video games.

Ronnie is the heart of the movie, the only person who seems like she might be able to get through to Caine. They obviously have a thing for each other, and her kid treats him like a big brother or cool uncle and asks about him alot. This leads to a heartbreaking scene where Ronnie has to explain racial profiling to the kid without making it sound too bad.

This is the debut of twin brother directors Albert and Allen Hughes, written with Tyger Williams, whose only movie since is the upcoming Michael Ealy/Sanaa Lathan stalker thriller THE PERFECT GUY, which I just heard of because there was a trailer on STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. The Hugheses have also been less prolific than I would’ve expected. Since then their films together have been DEAD PRESIDENTS, AMERICAN PIMP, FROM HELL, THE BOOK OF ELI, and that’s it. Separately, Allen did two TV movies and BROKEN CITY starring Mark Wahlberg. And also the video for “I Need a Doctor” by Dr. Dre.

Note: Johnny Depp loved the Hughes Brothers after FROM HELL and tried to get them to direct both PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 4 and THE LONE RANGER.

Their filmatism has an energy to it, fast-paced but not spastic. The childhood flashback, lit partly in red, has a feverish, stylized feel, but mostly they bring a sense of danger to blandly familiar locations like a convenience store, a generic house, the inside of a car.

They also did a great job of finding the cast of young, new faces. It seems like Pinkett is playing “the Jada Pinkett role,” but they invented that, because this is her first movie. Like her, Tate had been doing small TV parts (Hunter, 21 Jump Street, The Wonder Years, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) but this movie debut is an all-timer. He and his older brothers (Larron did a bunch of TV shows, Lahmard is still doing movies today) were in a drama program and drew inspiration from the success of their classmate Malcolm Jamal Warner. Somehow he wasn’t completely pigeon-holed after playing O-Dog, because he’s turned out to be a natural fit for handsome nice guy roles, but he’s the clear MVP of the movie. He has the right kind of charisma that you can understand why a dumbass would still hang out with him even though his idea of a joke is to walk up to him in a parking lot and put a gun to the back of his head.

Poor Turner (who had already been in DEEP COVER, as well as Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” video) has to be the lead in the shadow of that, but he does well. He actually always reminded me of Dr. Dre, he could’ve played him if they did the N.W.A movie earlier.

Except for some R. Kelly songs, the music is pretty raw. The score is by QD III (whose dad, Quincy Jones, has a song on the BOYZ soundtrack, so this is literally not your father’s soundtrack), and there are songs by Spice 1, Ant Banks, MC Eiht, Brand Nubian and DJ Quik among others, plus some George Clinton and Zapp to remind you how the sound of the region rose out of the primordial funk ooze of “Atomic Dog,” “More Bounce To the Ounce” and “The Funky Worm.”

I don’t know if it’s just because of Ice Cube in BOYZ, but apparently New Line Cinema demanded a major rapper be in the cast. Tupac Shakur was set to play Sharif, but didn’t want to play the reformed character and it sounds like he was being a dick about it. At a rehearsal Allen Hughes apparently told him to “stop acting like a bitch,” and they had to go outside. Eventually Tupac was fired. Then, while the Hugheses were filming this music video:

…Tupac showed up with a bunch of Crips – “30 or 40” according to Tyrin Turner, 12 according to Hughes – who beat up Allen. He sued, and Tupac had to plead guilty since he’d bragged about doing it on Yo! MTV Raps (while Ed Lover literally tried to cover his mouth so he wouldn’t incriminate himself). He ended up doing 15 days for it.

Now you can buy MENACE II SOCIETY as a double-feature DVD with the earlier movie JUICE, where Tupac did get to play the O-Dog character.

Apparently they also had cast Spice 1 as Caine and MC Ren as his friend A-Wax at some point. When they left they must’ve handled it more professionally. So New Line’s rapper ended up being MC Eiht from Compton’s Most Wanted (who have a song on the BOYZ soundtrack) as A-Wax. Also in the cast are Pooh Man and Too $hort. Harold is played by the underrated Oakland rapper Saafir, who (like Tupac) was on Digital Underground’s album The Body-Hat Syndrome, and he later had a group called Golden State Warriors with Xzibit and Ras Kass who were on Dre’s record label Aftermath but unfortunately never finished an album.

Here’s a 1999 Saafir song inspired in part by Tupac’s death:

I never knew this until reading up on him just now, but apparently before this movie Saafir was one of the passengers in a TWA flight that crashed on takeoff. He was the first one out of the plane and jumped before the slide was fully inflated, injuring his back. After some compounding incidents and not taking care of himself over the years he lost the use of his legs, and is currently in a wheelchair and unable to tour or pay the bills. That bums me out. Sorry to bring it up.

MENACE has more in common with BOYZ than I remembered. There’s a barbecue (at a park instead of a backyard). There’s a cameo by Yo-Yo at a party. There’s a sudden R&B-backed sex scene right after an emotional conversation about how fucked up life is for black people in L.A.

I really like MENACE, and for many years I felt that it was the better version of BOYZ, the one that’s rawer and more intense and less finger-wavy, showing not telling. But watching them both again, to my surprise, I gotta give the edge to BOYZ. Maybe that just means I’m old. BOYZ is definitely cornier, but it’s also more heartfelt, more personal, more human. People (including Eazy-E, apparently) called BOYZ “an After School Special,” but MENACE is a cartoon, reveling in its hyperbolic bleakness. In the opening, Pernell is letting the little moppet drink booze and hold a gun, and meanwhile his dad (Samuel L. Jackson, previewing his Jules Winfield wig)…

still_menaceiisociety1

…is gambling and arguing and he kills a man right in front of Caine, who says in narration that was the first time that happened but not the last.

Later it seems like everybody he knows has killed people and gotten away with it. The convenience store murders hang over them RIVER’S EDGE style, but then O-Dog casually kills a crackhead in an alley because he offers to suck his dick. O-Dog and his friends create that desperation, then get mad about it.

Do we really believe that, as the tagline says, “This is the truth. This is what’s real”? Maybe, but some of it kinda reminds me of BULLY when they talk about doing acid and playing Mortal Kombat. It’s more about trying to make us clutch our pearls than show us what’s going on. Why, I never. I have the vapors!

They get hassled by police the way the Boyz do, except they actually deserve it because they’re criminals and straight up psychopaths. And to prove this is more movie than reality, Caine gets found out and interrogated by a mean cop. And yes, the mean cop is played by Bill Duke.

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See, that’s a great movie scene, but it’s a movie scene. BOYZ is clearly based on real experiences, and I could be wrong, but this seems like more of an exaggerated fantasy to me. Admittedly that makes it more like gangsta rap, obviously an influence on both movies, starting with the titles. I guess it’s down to if you want a movie that’s more “real” or more authentic.

The fatal beef in BOYZ is over nothing, some guy bumped Ricky and it escalated out of macho stupidity. In this one the protagonist is completely in the wrong. Just like he avenged his own cousin’s death, this girl’s cousin (Samuel Monroe Jr., SET IT OFF) confronted him about being a deadbeat dad, and Caine responded by beating the shit out of him. Then the cousin comes back with guns. That’s not a good way to handle it, of course, but still. Caine isn’t really a victim here, he’s catching his karma. He’s being punished for being a dirtbag.

That’s where MENACE turns moral. Caine can’t get away with it, his crimes finally do come back to him. He flashes back over all the bad things he did that led to this and wishes he could change them, but he can’t. The message is clear, but I now think BOYZ is more powerful because it’s indicting an attitude more than specific crimes. To avoid Caine’s fate, you can tell yourself, don’t be a murdering, drug manufacturing, cousin-beating, baby-abandoning scumbag. The majority of bad people could make a legitimate argument that they’re not as bad as Caine and O-Dog. To avoid Ricky’s fate is harder and more complicated. It’s about changing the world, not just not being Scarface.

On the other hand, the theme of passing your problems down to the next generation is powerful. And MENACE does have one important pop culture reference that BOYZ is sorely lacking:

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So maybe we’ll call it a tie.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 20th, 2015 at 12:53 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Menace II Society”

  1. Vern: That’s always been my problem with the Hughes Brothers. They want to make these important movies about serious topics, but I can never shake the feeling that all they really care about are the fancy shots. They really want to be Michael Bay but they’ve convinced themselves their Martin Scorsese. Like in MENACE, they make a movie about how terrible street violence is, how tragic and pointless, but then they shoot all the violence like it’s fuckin’ awesome. It doesn’t feel like tragic real violence, it feels like fun movie violence. People don’t come out of MENACE thinking about how sad it is, they come out thinking how awesome O-Dog is, because they’ve used every tool in the filmmaking arsenal to present him as such.

    I just don’t think their form matches their function. I had the same problem with BOOK OF ELI and FROM HELL, too. Super heavy themes, slick and exploitative presentation. If they ever decide to just give up and just be hacks, they’d be way better at it than Singleton. They’re sensationalists at heart. They should just embrace it.

    Then again, without those scenes of gloriously stylized violence, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the movie at all, so maybe they’re on to something.

  2. This movie doesn’t quite hold up like you would hope, but damn O-Dog is a classic character and performance.

    Also, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that the Hughes Bros. intended for this to be a “gangsta” version of Goodfellas. So Caine is supposed to be Ray Liotta’s character, O-Dog is Joe Pesci, etc.

  3. The Original Paul

    August 20th, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Excellent review, Vern. Can’t comment on the movie, but I really enjoyed reading the write-up. One of your best for a while.

  4. Menace II Society and Juice were definitely in heavy rotation during middle school, as were their soundtracks (Know the Ledge, Uptown Anthem, Straight-up Menace). I never got into Boyz N the Hood the same way. Truth be told, I’m not even sure if I ever saw it all (need to revisit).

    Anyway, this review is spot on and takes me back to the film. Totally agree on the feverish dreamlike quality and the hyperbolic bleakness–excellent characterization that really captures the vibe of this film. It’s pretty nihilistic. At the time, I don’t think I appreciated that Caine was (indeed) truly a dirtbag psychopath, as Vern points out. Relative to his peer group and O-Dog in particular, he seemed like a pretty sympathetic protagonist, and I guess he was trying to turn a corner and make a fresh start, which (spoilerish)****************is what made the ending such a gut punch.

  5. I was thirteen when this opened, and pretty into it and the soundtrack cassette tape at the time, but I agree with Mr. Majestyk. The movie’s technique is too cool about what it’s claiming to condemn, and ends up feeling a bit juvenile. I prefer Boyz N the Hood, which is less preoccupied with proving how hard it is.

  6. Majestyk, although it may be over-stylized (with the slow mo and whatnot), I certainly don’t think the final scene of violence glorifies it as awesome or sexy action fun. It’s pretty brutal, ugly, and heartbreaking. Likewise, the O-Dog liquor store shooting scene and the crackhead with the hamburgers scene are extremely unsettling generally, and especially in depicting O-Dog’s utter indifference to human life, as well as the forsaken-ness of his victims. Like with early Eminem albums or Malcolm MacDowell in Clockwork Orange or Pesci in Goodfellas or any number of other culturally iconic fictional psychopaths from the last 40 years, I’m sure there were plenty of young, overly literalistic, wannabe thugs and tough guys who actually thought O-Dog was a badass to be emulated (which reminds of the Juice scene where they’re cheering on James Cagney). But I didn’t come away from the film with the sense that it was depicting violence as cathartic, cartoonish, consequence-free, or generally awesome.

  7. Vern, are you going to do a review of Clockers? I think that’s one is the best of these “in the hood” films. It’s a great film that I don’t feel suffer from any of the problems of Boyz or Menace.

    You should also review Above The Rim, which I don’t think is a great film, but a pretty interesting one.

    You can do them all in chronological order:
    1991: Boyz in the Hood
    1993: Menace II Society
    1994: Above the Rim
    1995: Clockers

    End it with He Got Game (1998), as that is a nice double feature with Above the Rim.

  8. I do feel that this is basically gangsta rap: the movie.

    At the same time I never felt the violence was over glorified. I felt it was pretty fucking horrific actually especially the crackhead scene. I lived 2 blocks away from the base of the Wild Cowboys growing up. Sadly I’m not from the west but I did see the people who didn’t belong in our blocks basically get dealt with nonchalantly like that crackhead in the movie growing up and it was off putting as hell. That was probably a key reason I had been going to therapy since 8 years old it helped a lot cause by the time I was like 10 I was off that but that same year O-Dog reminded me of those people and what’s scary is that Larenz Tate wasn’t even 18 when he filmed this movie so it was extremely believable.

    I saw so many kids throw their life away over serious bullshit. I don’t know if Larenz Tate knew people like that or if it’s just due to the Hughes but he captured that essence to a tee and it was pretty scary to see. He kinda works as a horror villain just a pure sociopath. He’s like the Richie from OUT FOR JUSTICE from South Central. They’re both really rowdy muthafuckas people that BOYZ N’ THE HOOD just kinda flirted with exploring.

    This is more visceral because every fucking character I would say is a villain in their own right. It’s very primitive in it’s mind state just pretty damn raw as well as cinematic. It’s a very ugly movie actually I never felt it was something that made violence seem like a frolicking good time. Hong Kong John Woo movies do that. MENACE I don’t think does.

    It’s a bit over sensationalized like NEW JACK CITY but that Hollywood factor to me works as a way to add some levity to such a heavy topic. I think if played more straight this movie would’ve been more of a problem and maybe yeah The Hughes Brothers weren’t capable of that. It’s not their element and that’s ok because staying in their lane worked well enough.

    I do think a lot of people did misinterpret it but it was a pretty damn memorable movie to me growing up for the right reasons I would say. It reminded me of what I did not want to be and to not use the excuse of growing up in a shitty situation to ever justify selling my integrity like that. Haven’t seen it in years but I could still recount it beat by beat.

  9. I Have Always Viewed This Film As A Horror Film & A Pretty Good One At That. It Also Has One Of My Favourite Things In Films, The Switching Off The Music In The Car Park Leaving Atmospheric Silence. For Me, A Classic Film. Hope Life Is Treating You Well Vern…………….

  10. I’ve always felt this movie was superior to Boyz n the Hood. It was raw and unapologetic. It didn’t sermonize. It simply gave you an unblinking view of how kids live in the ghetto.

  11. I find the use of violence to be expressionistic and as a manifestation of the hyper masculine personas these young men employ as armor against their bleak surroundings.

    I also think there’s a bit of a double-standard. People generally understand that Scorsese isn’t endorsing his ultra-violent protagonists, he’s commenting on the American Dream. Meanwhile, the Hughes brothers employ the *exact same techniques* and get criticism for sensationalizing. This plays out interestingly in the twin contexts of Taxi Driver’s icky fanbase and the idiots who think that O-Dog is a the hero of Menace.

  12. That kind of implies that there *is* a hero of MENACE.

  13. Evil does not necessitate good.

  14. “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be then me. “

  15. Man, they must have kicked themselves later for writing their way right out of a sequel titled Menace 2 Society.

  16. They still could have used 2 MENACE 2 SOCIETY.

  17. Would M3nac3 II Soci3ty be too confusing? I only ask because it’s necessary in order to get the the inevitable Menace IV Society.

  18. The easiest solution for the title of a third movie would obviously be MENACE II SOCIETY: TOKYO DRIFT.

  19. I haven’t seen this since my college days, after it came to home video. I remember being enthralled by it. But by then I was into stuff like Deep Cover, Boyz N the Hood…I think my earlier love of Lethal Weapon and sub-grade badass cinema and crime shit made me love stuff like this. At the age of 40 I want to know what I would think of it now.

    Always loved the Bill Duke scene. Has always stuck with me. Fuckin’ Cooke and Mac directing Deep Cover then this, fuck yeah.
    And the convenience store murders have always stuck with me. Disturbing in their flaunting of senseless brutality.

  20. There’s a scene where Caine buys drugs, and he asks the dealers how much they have in their stash … it would normally be the film setting up Caine’s eventual demise, going down this drug dealer path, deciding to rob his supplier, etc.

    But in this case I think the point was that there are just so many available options for this guy to fuck up, and so few positive influences. I don’t think the movie’s saying that Caine is a dirtbag so much as a predictable result of the influences he grew up with.

    I think Mr. Majestyk is partially right about the sensationalized, kinetic violence, like the flashback to when Caine first sees his father kill. But elsewhere I think there’s the exact opposite, like when Caine’s cousin is having a seizure on the asphalt after getting shot in the head during a carjacking. It’s an icky clinical detail that doesn’t make gun violence look sexy or badass, it’s shoving your face in the *reality* the tagline boasts about.

    There was one part that struck me as weird. When the cops beat them up and dump them in the Mexican hood, there’s the long scary prelude where the Mexicans are walking up to presumably beat the shit out of Caine and his buddy. But then it abruptly fades to black, and the voiceover says (claims) “But they just helped us.” I kinda want to call bullshit on this scene, it seems like the filmmakers changed their mind about what happened in the editing booth.

  21. I first watched this movie in 2001, and this was the TV version of the film, and this was a while before I bought a VHS of it (I did not fully switch to DVD at that point). Just a tip, don’t watch the edited version of this film, unless you want to laugh at the badly done edits; I can say that I remember which parts were obviously editing the use of MF.

    Anyway, about the film itself, I remember I was first drawn to watch this movie because of its soundtrack. My uncle had the soundtrack, and being a long-time fan of hip-hop, I saw that the soundtrack had a good lineup in Too $hort, Spice 1, MC Eiht, DJ Quik, Brand Nubian, etc. Also, I did like Boyz N The Hood, so I wanted to check out another hood movie.

    I remember thinking that O-Dog scared me to death, and you were on point with the fact that Caine and O-Dog wore those crucifixes around their neck while being lectured on religion by Caine’s grandpa.

    I still feel like I need to check out the extended cut. I heard that a few scenes were added in, as well as a few graphic shots, like in the scene when O-Dog and Caine kill Harold’s killers and A-Wax kills that one guy.

  22. Gotta disagree with this review. Even though the violence is over the top( the shooting of the cracked being an example), the actual depiction of the era is pretty damn spot on. Every time I see this movie it reminds me of the west side of Chicago in the 90’s. Boyz n the Hood is a good movie but it’s the most whitewashed version possible. Everything from the dice games, the card games with 40’s, the general feel of chaos when they’re waking through the Watts neighborhood in Menace is exactly the way it felt on the Westside of Chicago. To someone on the outside looking in Caine would be a terrible person, but from the inside he’s someone with a heart who got sucked up in his surroundings. Unlike Odog and a lot of the others, he has a conscience that makes him reflect on the things he does. He’s young so he makes lots of mistakes like not taking care of his child. The beating of the cousin is just a reaction that is caused by being confronted in front of others who might see him as weak if he doesn’t beat this guy down.Menace is the rawest version of the street life I’ve seen in a movie. It doesn’t sugar coat anything and just gives you the story straight with no chaser.

  23. I LOVE this movie. I love the soundtrack. It’s hard to watch for me because it’s so bleak and reflective of the hardness of that era, but man, is it great. Co-sign everything Chitown said.

    That Samuel L Jackson scene is incredible, and holds up really well, too. I just re-watched it and it’s pretty amazing how he could make a character out of little to nothing. Just a cigarette, a wig, and a wifebeater and he just absolutely owns that scene. Just ferocious screen presence when he gets the right character, or gets a bit part like this to play.

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