The mean streets of America's urban ghettos are suddenly teeming with filmmakers. "Boyz N the Hood," "New Jack City," "Hanging With the Home Boys" and "Straight Out of Brooklyn" have all told basically the same story of trapped teen-agers steamrollered by an unforgiving environment. "Juice" (citywide) is the latest entry in this particular sweepstakes, and though it is a vivid, promising piece of work from first-time director Ernest R. Dickerson, it also shows how difficult it's becoming to deal with this material in any kind of fresh manner.
Dickerson, who has been director of photography for all of Spike Lee's features, does capture one aspect of the inner city particularly well, and that is the crucial role played by rap and hip-hop music. Raheem, Bishop, Q and Steel, the four best friends who hang together and make up a Harlem crew, do not merely listen to the music, they inhale it, taking from its insistent beat a rhythm and an attitude they live their lives by, and Dickerson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gerard Brown, understands that dynamic absolutely.
In fact it is the dream of Q (Omar Epps), "Juice's" protagonist, to break out and become a successful disc jockey, and the film opens with his mother yelling at him for the oversleeping that inevitably results from his staying up late practicing his DJ routine.
Almost simultaneously, we meet the rest of the group as they start their days: the smooth-talking Raheem (Khalil Kain), the chubby, good-humored Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) and the edgy Bishop (Tupac Shakur), whose father sits motionless, catatonic, in front of a TV set.
he parents of these kids think they're off to school, but school is less than an afterthought in their lives, and their connection with their hard-working, worrying elders is barely that. More even than most teen-agers, they live in their own insular, self-contained world, using their own language and signs and by turns aimlessly roaming the city's streets or hanging out at the local pool hall/video arcade.
Though only one of the four actors (Hopkins, who debuted in "Stand by Me") has any kind of feature experience, this quartet couldn't fit into their roles any more adroitly if they were lifelong members of the Screen Actors Guild. And Dickerson clearly feels an enormous warmth for the guys, so much so that we tend to look with leniency on their initial indiscretions, for instance the shoplifting of records to help Q prepare for his possible big break in the Mixmaster Massacre DJ contest.
But given the kind of neighborhood this crew hangs out in, it's no surprise that shoplifting will not be the culmination of their life of crime. Egged on by Bishop, who wears a gold submachine gun around his neck and seems to consider Jimmy Cagney's psychotic mobster in "White Heat" his role model, the boys set their sights on riskier game.
While no one is going to question the probability that kids like these, even kids who do not use drugs to any noticeable extent, would turn to serious crime, their action is an unfortunate one as far as the film is concerned. For one thing, it comes surprisingly soon after a very strong scene where they explicitly decide against violence, and "Juice" provides no explanation at all for this sudden and rather startling about-face.
More seriously, once criminal activity turns up in the film (rated R for strong language and some violence) the narrative becomes less interesting and fatally foreseeable. Without either the directorial pizazz that Mario Van Peebles brought to "New Jack City" or the ability to evoke deeper emotions that enriched "Boyz N the Hood," "Juice" tends to simply evaporate, getting less and less interesting as its plot tries and fails to live up to the much more intriguing cultural ambience Dickerson and Brown have created.
Though the trailers and an early version of the print ads for "Juice" have created something of a tempest in a teapot as far as how exploitative the film's intentions are, Dickerson, though not averse to a little exploitation (and why should he be?), clearly has some very serious things on his mind and the directing and acting talent at his disposal to make something happen.
Given all that, it seems a shame that "Juice's" script ends up so unexciting and predictable. Both the film's characters and the real-life situations they're based on deserve better. Now that filmmakers have begun to show the ghetto in living color with some regularity, they will have to come to grips with the fact that just showing it isn't going to cut it anymore.
Omar Epps: Q
Tupac Shakur: Bishop
Jermaine Hopkins: Steel
Khalil Kain: Raheem
Cindy Herron: Yolanda
A Moritz/Heyman production in association with Island World, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Ernest R. Dickerson. Producers David Heyman & Neal H. Moritz and Peter Frankfurt. Co-producer Preston Holmes. Screenplay Gerard Brown and Ernest R. Dickerson. Cinematographer Larry Banks. Editors Sam Pollard and Brunilda Torres. Costumes Donna Berwick. Music Hank Schocklee and the Bomb Squad. Production design Lester Cohen. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (strong language and some violence).