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Menace II Society(1993)
Story about everyday life in Watts as seen through the eyes of a teenager who is trying to overcome his bleak surroundings.
For more about Menace II Society and the Menace II Society Blu-ray release, see Menace II Society Blu-ray Review published by Dustin Somner on September 18, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Larenz Tate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bill Duke, Charles S. Dutton, Tyrin Turner
Directors: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
» See full cast & crew
Menace II Society Blu-ray Review
Goodfellas injected into the "hood".
Reviewed by Dustin Somner, September 18, 2009
Having watched Boyz n the Hood several times over the years, I was curious to sit down and finally take in Menace II Society, the much-hyped coming-of-age tale that's similarly set within a predominantly black ghetto. Released in 1993 to wide critical acclaim, Menace II Society marked the directorial debut of the Hughes Brothers, who went on to direct Dead Presidents and From Hell. Well-known for its over-the-top violence and profanity-laced dialogue, the film has been praised by many fans for its unflinching portrayal of life in the "hood", which I admittedly don't have much perspective on.
Following his recent graduation from high school, Caine (Tyrin Turner) becomes an inadvertant accomplice to a brutal liquor store robbery that's carried out by his friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate). Through a series of flashbacks, we learn Caine grew up surrounded by the clientele of his drug dealing father and received little emotional support from his junkie mother. At some point, he was sent to live in the Los Angeles projects with his religious-minded grandparents, but he continued to follow in his parent's footsteps by selling dope through his high school years. One night, while Caine and his cousin Harold (played by Saafir) are headed to meet up with a group of friends following a party, they're involved in a deadly carjacking that lands Caine in the hospital. The sudden brush with death should give him reason to reevaluate his life and the path he's headed down, but even the brief counseling of his friend Sharif (Vonte Sweet) isn't enough to make him change his ways. Instead, he and his posse of friends engage in one vicious act after another, showing a constant disregard for the basic human rights of their fellow man. Will Caine ever realize the consequences of his actions and grasp the better life that's within reach, or has he already progressed too far down the path of no return?
Despite the popularity of Menace II Society over the years, I struggled to identify with anything that takes place through the 97 minute runtime. Perhaps it's my lack of exposure to the elements that may very well be the realities of life for the black youth living in the projects, but I couldn't come to grips with the sense of normalcy that's portrayed in the reckless killing, beating and robbing that permeates the film. I know there's something to be said for the vicious cycle of revenge that follows the murder of a friend, but that moral question was addressed to a superior degree with the release of Boyz n the Hood, and is treated as a mere afterthought in Menace II Society. The sheer number of unjustified killings throughout the film eventually makes you wonder why anyone ever leaves the safety of their home. I suppose you'd have to ask someone who actually grew up in this atmosphere whether the sense of brutality is accurate, but I'd feel more comfortable with the assumption there's good and bad in any environment.
The level of violence and disregard for human life in the film is hard to stomach, but what I find even more repulsive is the portrayal of black youth. We're all aware of the racial stereotypes that accompany the ghetto environment, but it seems slightly offensive to stuff all of those notions into a film of this nature without adequately addressing the larger social implications of why every generation remains stuck in the same trap. Nearly every character in the film is in and out of prison, the profanity spews in a fashion that borders on comical, and there's one particular scene with Caine and O-Dog walking down a line of housing in the projects where almost every black male is depicted enjoying a forty of Olde English. I hate to keep coming back to Boyz n the Hood as a point of reference, but at least that entry in the genre had the good grace to show a range of morality and educational promise in the characters that populate the neighborhood, while centering the film around a young man with a good heart.
Aside from my disappointment in the film itself, the acting from the main characters is reasonably proficient. Tyrin Turner has a lot riding on his shoulders for such a young actor, but aside from a couple stiff scenes, he manages to bring emotional weight to the character of Caine. Larenz Tate is also impressive as the unbalanced baby-face, O-Dog. He's the type of friend you want on your side, but should never turn your back on. Rounding out the supporting cast, we have a brief cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as the deranged father of Caine, an early performance from Jada Pinkett Smith as Caine's love interest, and a minor (yet important role) for the underutilized Charles S. Dutton, who challenges Caine to seek a better life.
Menace II Society Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in 1080p utilizing the VC-1 codec (at an average bitrate of 22Mbps), Menace II Society offers and average visual experience that seems to accurately portrays the drab neighborhood of Watts, California. The level of fine object detail on display remains fairly proficient from scene to scene, but lacks the texturing we'd expect on the surface of faces or the fabric of clothing. Judging from New Line's track record on prior releases, I'd wager the lack of detail is a direct result of the excessive application of digital noise reduction to remove some of the grain the plagued prior releases of the film. From a color standpoint, the spectrum maintains a natural appearance, which translates into a predominance of dingy, brownish-yellow hues. I wasn't a big fan of the choice to film several party scenes with red light bulbs illuminating the interior shots (since it tends to bleed out detail), but this is simply a stylistic choice and not a deficiency in the transfer. Moving along, black levels are relatively deep, but there are several nighttime shots where contrast struggles to differentiate between the light and dark features in the picture, resulting in a minor loss of shadow detail. Taken as a whole, most fans will be pleased with the visual upgrade Menace II Sociey has undergone on this Blu-ray release, but you'll still want to temper your expectations to reflect the suspected use of excessive DNR.
Menace II Society Blu-ray, Audio Quality
This is where the fun really begins. Presented in TrueHD 7.1, Warner has delivered a bombastic audio track that's a clear contender for "subwoofer workout disc of 2009". The hip-hop infused soundtrack has a punchy yet deep characteristic that accurately reflects the musical scene of the early 90's. In addition, expect to hear a couple of motown tracks thrown in to provide a contrasting element to the harsh beats and lyrical anger of the hip-hop offerings. Fortunately, the musical compositions aren't the only aspects of the track that shine. We also have excellent spacial separation to incorporate the use of surround speakers (this is 7.1 after all) as gun blasts register from every direction. If you turn the volume up high enough, you'll probably find yourself jumping in your seat during a couple of the aggressively violent scenes. Turning to the dialogue, the mix delivers a nice level of clarity, but I was a little disappointed in the low volume levels from time to time, which required several receiver adjustments to clearly make out some of the softer speaking parts. It's not extreme enough to hinder the enjoyment of the film, but remains a minor setback in an otherwise impressive audio track.
Menace II Society Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Gangsta Vision-Making Menace II Society (1080i, Dolby Digital 2.0, 21:36 min): dominated by interviews with the Hughes Brothers, this recent featurette is a look back at the themes incorporated into the film and an analysis of the difficulties they ran into throughout the production. Even if you're not a fan of the film, this is still an interesting special feature to sit through, since it delivers a clear message about the goals the filmmakers attempted to accomplish.
Interview with the Hughes Brothers (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 10:52 min): As a contrasting perspective, this interview was completed around the time of the film's original release. Out of the entire interview, I found it interesting to hear them comment on the violence and exploitation aspects of the film, which reflects an extremely small segment of the black culture (they use Goodfellas as a comparison with its portrayal of Italian culture). Judging from their recent interview, it seems their opinion of what their film represents has changed over the years (likely due to the positive critical response from the inner-city youth portrayed in the film).
Rounding out the extras, we have a standard definition theatrical trailer, and a socially informative audio commentary (Hughes Brothers, Darin Scott, Ryan Williams, Tyger Williams and Larenz Tate) that delves deep into the history of black culture within the "hood". I wish I'd viewed the film with the commentary first, since it better explains the motivations and way of life presented in the film.
Menace II Society Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Menace II Society is a film that will likely polarize audiences. Judging from its positive critical reception back in 1993 and the cult status it's maintained over the years, there are plenty of viewers out there that don't share my dislike for the film. I'm not in a position to judge the accuracy of the film's portrayal of life in the "hood", but I found it easier to connect with John Singleton's superior entry in the genre (Boyz n the Hood), and will likely stick with repeat viewings of that classic rather than this release. From a technical standpoint, the disc should offer fans a significant upgrade in the audio category that complements the visual proficiency on display. If you've been waiting to revisit Menace II Society, there's no better time than the present.
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