black-urban-ghetto gangster film. The movie is set in South Central Los Angeles, stars an all black cast with a story that centers around "the thug life," and it was released on the heels of the critically acclaimed and widely known Boyz in the Hood.
While all that is true, Menace II Society shrugs off easy labels from its opening scenes. It has more in common with Angels with Dirty Faces and The Asphault Jungle than it does with any of its more obvious contemporaries. It's about gangsters but not gangs. It's about people without hope, trapped in situations not of their own making and where no one is in control. It follows a morally ambiguous hero, a roughneck and criminal, whose voiceover underlines the action in a laconic, cynical, and melancholy tone. There's no air in this world, and no compromise -- not for the characters and not for the viewer. In other words, this movie is noir through and through.
Caine is a young black man living in the ghetto the summer after his high school graduation. Like every teen, he's full of piss and vinegar and ambivalent about his future. Unfortunately, his father was a drug dealer, his mother a junkie, most of his friends carry guns and the hubcaps on his car are worth more than his life.
In any other movie, Caine would be the villain. He does terrible things for the wrongs reasons, but despite that you can't help but root for him. Maybe it's because everyone around him can see his worth and cares for him, from his grandparents to his sociopathic buddy O-Dogg to an old friend's girlfriend. Maybe it's because everyone's been in that place -- the strange time after graduation and before "real life," where you-don't-know-what and everyone keeps asking you what you're going to do, and you have no answer.
And maybe it's because Menace II Society cleverly follows noir lines to make a subtle social point: That given harsh circumstance and a desperate situation, people will fight for survival and it has nothing to do with race. That maybe, just maybe, if you had been born in a certain place at a certain time, your life would go the exact same way.
The Hughes Brothers and screenwriter Tyger Williams are smart enough not to preach and they never pander. This is a gangster film with all the trimmings, a brisk pace and a raw, almost documentary-style level of violence. They use the action to cleverly comment on race, religion, and politics, and by wrapping it up in a noir veneer, they will leave you shocked, thoughtful, and a little quesy by film's end.
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