Juice, a coming-of-age picture about a group of four young black men growing up in a New York City ghetto, is the kind of film you root for during the first hour, then pray for during the second. Ernest Dickerson's movie looks great, of course, but the former cinematographer doesn't linger over his images the way his chief employer, Spike Lee, does. He keeps things chugging confidently along, occasionally detouring to give us a languorously photographed sex scene or a thrillingly edited visit to an amateur DJ contest.
But in keeping with the cliches of the recently minted young-urban-black-men-in-trouble genre, a frightening act of brutality shatters the film's easygoing mood, and Dickerson goes for the Big Statements. Uncertain of how to make them, he dishes out chase scenes and cheap jolts, building to the obligatory final battle on a rooftop that plunges the villain to his death. "Violence begets more violence," Dickerson seems to be saying. But John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood and Matty Rich's Straight out of Brooklyn made this point before, and with more rough-edged, heartfelt anguish. Juice's message is really, "Violent thrillers beget more violent thrillers," or "When the plot stalls, cut to the chase."
It's a shame, because the first half of Juice is affectionate, true, and alive - Dickerson's prowling camera work has a loose, jazzy rhythm. He's good with actors, too: he knows when to jump from speaker to speaker, how to maneuver through crowds and pick up stray bits of dialogue, and when to cut away from one character's lie to reveal another character's disbelieving stare.
It's too bad his script, co-written with Gerard Brown, provokes so many disbelieving stares from the audience: Dickerson's inner-city world seems half informed by journalistic observation and half by other movies (like when Dickerson follows up an expertly rendered detour through a party where crack is being used with a corny, Batman-style rooftop duel). "Juice" is slang for respect, and the way Dickerson's characters describe it, only one man can have it - to get it for yourself, you have to kill him. The juice gets passed from person to person like the sheriff's tin star in an old Western: he who possesses it is rewarded with heroic camera angles and cool theme music.
Juice's cast is distributed according to type, like in Stand by Me. There's an overweight, cowardly kid named Steel (Jermaine Hopkins); a well-spoken peacemaker named Raheem (Khalil Kain); a talented amateur DJ named Q (Omar Epps) who could probably escape his surroundings someday, if he weren't so doggedly loyal to his buddies; and a loose cannon named Bishop (Tupac Shakur, a member of the rap group Digital Underground), whose volatile temper and harebrained schemes test his friends' patience. Although you've seen the characters before, these actors play them with an infectious untrained energy, trading unexplained in-jokes and blurting decidedly unclever insults just like real people. But their natural charm clashes with Dickerson and Brown's urge to stuff their mouths with wooden thriller dialogue.
After the film shifts gears, the thriller baggage and slightly wonky preachiness get mighty thick. We can tell by his crazy stare and nervous body rhythms that Bishop is drunk on his newfound power; when he lectures his friends at gunpoint about how godlike he feels, the whole movie seems to dim and flatten, as if Dickerson's characters had become comic-book shills speaking in word balloons. This cast deserves better.
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But sometimes their jagged energy transcends the movie they're in, even later on, when Juice takes on the giddy unreality of a Freddy Krueger stalker film. Khalil Kain's Raheem is a believable voice of reason, with just the right hint of self-righteousness; and Epps, saddled with the decent-but-troubled worrier role, projects introverted intelligence, like Harvey Keitel in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), a seminal coming-of-age movie that Juice's director has obviously seen a few too many times.
As Bishop, the Robert De Niro-in-Mean Streets/Ice Cube-in-Boyz N the Hood/Gary Oldman-in-State of Grace crazy character, Tupac Shakur does his director's horror-movie tendencies one better. When, at the funeral, Bishop embraces his victim's mother, who has no inkling that this polite young man murdered her boy, Shakur's soothing words of reassurance clash with the creepily confident look on his face: He glances over the woman's shoulder at his shell-shocked buddies, and smirks when he realizes how much they fear him. Bishop knows he's gone insane, knows that his friends know it, too, and uses this to his advantage. (That's what gives Bishop the juice - no one's quite sure what he's capable of.) Shakur radiates intelligence and menace; if the material surrounding him had been been as carefully shaped as his performance, Juice could have been a stunner.
Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson; screenplay by Gerard Brown and Ernest R. Dickerson; with Omar Epps, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain, Tupac Shakur.