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Sunday, April 16, 2006


Courtesy of a friend who is liquidating his VHS collection (aren't we all?), I just caught "Menace II Society," twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes' 1993 gangsta film set in Watts. I appreciate it when a movie rings true, and this one is very believable -- scarily so. Here we have an exploitation movie in the tradition of the John Ashley "J.D." (juvenile delinquent) movies of the '50s, amped up considerably with '90s violence and vulgarity.

Tyrin Turner as "Kaydee" Caine is the film's center. Caine does some terrible things, but still we sympathize with him even as we somehow know he is doomed. Jada Pinkett, as a "kept" woman with a 5-year-old son, is drop-dead gorgeous, and you can tell she is headed for bigger and better things.

I was impressed with performances by four older actors in the piece: Samuel L. Jackson as Caine's unstable drug-dealer dad, Tat; Arnold Johnson as Caine's hopeful, but ultimately heartbroken, grandfather; Charles S. Dutton as a caring adult in the community; and Bill Duke in the role he does best, as the laconic, I've-Heard-It-All detective who interviews Caine. (Duke plays virtually the same role in 1999's "The Limey," in a scene opposite Terence Stamp. Duke is another secret weapon of the movies.)

Arnold Johnson, who died in 2000, was a familiar face in '70s films and sitcoms. Johnson's imdb filmography puts him in "Shaft," "Good Times," "Sanford and Son" and "The Jeffersons," for example. More than a few of the roles listed belie his ability: Bum, Wino, Drunk, Janitor. But the naturalistic Johnson scored some golden screen time in "Menace II Society" as the gospel-quoting gramps who makes the painful decision to cast Caine out of his home. All good things to those who keep in there swinging.


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