'Juice' takes straightforward look at power of misplaced values

January 17, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

A gun can't get it for you. A gun only makes you think you have it. But when you pull it and people's eyes get big and they back down, it's not because of you, it's because of the gun. You're still a boy.

What is it?

Aretha knew. She called it "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." The tragedy of our society is that many young men, undervalued by the world around them and unaware of any possibility of moving on up, think that when they pack that rod -- and feel the thrill and taste the power -- they're achieving respect; they believe they're telling the world for the first time: "Find out what it means to me."

But it's a dangerous, tragic illusion.

That illusion is at the center of Ernest Dickerson's "Juice," just as the word juice itself is another, jivier word for r.e.s.p.e.c.t. The movie watches with cool detachment as the quintessential black on black murder scenario unfolds: Four young men, not particularly brilliant but not particularly evil, drift toward the terrible moment when pulling the trigger will make one of them feel tough. Unfortunately, it makes another one of them feel nothing . . . forever.

Dickerson is widely known and respected as Spike Lee's cinematographer, and as a document of photography, "Juice" is first class. It has the bluish, chilly quality of city streets on cold winter mornings, and he makes you smell the exhaust in the air, and the despair.

As a dramatist (he co-wrote as well as directed), he's earnest and straightforward. There are no surprises in "Juice," but Dickerson, it must be said, has courage. He paints a world where the pressure applied by one's peers is enormous, so enormous that the saner mandates of parents and teachers all but disappear. The four young men, incidentally, are not underclass, third-generation welfare creations; more depressingly and more problematically, they all appear to be lower middle class, from stable families with conventional aspirations. There's no easy explanation for the rage they feel.

Effectively and briskly, Dickerson defines them. The Good Prince is Q, a gifted hip hop disc jockey, well played by Omar Epps; the Bad Prince is Bishop, played by rapper Tupac Shakur, seething with rage and cunning and rotten values, derived from god knows where. Between them are the plump and essentially harmless Steel (Jermain Hopkins) and the fundamentally decent Raheem (Khalil Kaine).

Where does the gun come from? It's just there, the last link in a tragic chain compounded of self-hatred, despair, lack of

opportunity, a media that gushes with images of easy pleasure and confuses violence with heroism, and something in their own intimate society that will not let them back down from any challenge, for to do so is to lose what little slice of identity they've already fought so hard to get.

One bad thing follows another. A robbery turns into a murder. A falling out among thieves turns into another murder and then an attempted murder, and suddenly we're in a jungle as old as time itself, where two young men hunt each other to the death, and all the bright lights of the big city don't mean a thing.

Dickerson ends on an ironic trope -- the last man standing is the man with the juice, but he's the only one who's had the wisdom to see through it. That's a little convenient, but it haunts, (P nevertheless.

Juice'

Starring Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur.

Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson.

Released by Paramount.

Rated R.

***

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