MENACE 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.
There 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)…
…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.
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:
So maybe we’ll call it a tie.
August 20th, 2015 at 1:52 pm
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.