Why would a movie studio want to sell one of its films in a negative way, practicing the most disgusting wish fulfillment imaginable?
I ask because, with its handling of "Juice," Ernest R. Dickerson's powerful and affecting new gang movie, Paramount seems to be going out of its way to make the exact same mistakes Orion made with "Colors" in 1988 and Columbia made with last year's "Boyz N the Hood." In both cases, the studios announced they expected problems, and, sure enough, there were problems.
But there also was enough controversy to get curious people into theaters. It's publicity, no matter how vile it is, and it generates interest and money.
Like "Boyz N the Hood," Dickerson's movie is a rather sad, sweet-natured neighborhood vignette -- as well as the most accessible of the so-called "gang films" to date -- so I resent it when I read that Paramount has openly announced that it will "allow theater owners to deduct the cost of additional security personnel from the film's rentals." This is tantamount to saying, "We expect the worst," and there's something queasily racist about it, too, considering that "Kuffs," much more violent, but all-white, was released without any such disclaimer.
There is violence in "Juice," to be sure, but the film itself is nothing if not responsible. Yes, this is one of those movies that says violence is definitely not nice and that uses violence to demonstrate this message, but the difference between this film and "Kuffs" or any Clint Eastwood "Dirty Harry" flick is that the violence here isn't glorified, glamorized or made comical or wallowed in.
The bloodletting here is fast, ugly and infrequent. Something awful happens, jolting us (but never rubbing our noses in it), and then the filmmakers quickly cut away from it and back to their rather recognizable story line about a nice kid trying to make the best of a hopeless situation (his environment) but pulled in different directions by peer pressure. It's as old as movies themselves and could be told apart from the trendy street-gang veneer.
The first half of the movie is immediately reminiscent of another Paramount movie -- "Saturday Night Fever" of 1978. Both films are about a bunch of guys, friends, who aren't exactly delinquents but are tough kids nevertheless who like to raise hell as a way of venting their frustrations.
In "Saturday Night Fever," set in Brooklyn, Tony Manero (John Travolta) and his buddies had disco; they lived for Saturday night and the disco. In "Juice," set in Harlem, Q (Omar Epps) -- which is short for Quincy -- and his friends live for rap music. We get the same rites of young men here we got 14 years ago, and we get the same hero with the same kind of dream: While Tony found expression on the disco floor, Q finds it with his amateur DJ home recordings. Both boys find reality interfering with their vague, unspoken plans to get out of the 'hood.
"Saturday Night Fever," however, was made at the height of the sexual revolution, and much of the commotion among the boys revolved around sex. Violence is the new pornography, and the second half of "Juice" is pushed ahead by one explosive, violent episode after another -- each one just another outlet, another misguided way of expressing manhood and pride, another way of getting "juice" -- i.e., respect.
Like the guys in "SNF," the kids here miss the point. You don't get respect when you don't give it -- or when you don't respect yourself.
In "Juice," we see that Q has more self-esteem than any of his friends -- more than straight-arrow Raheem (Khalil Kain) and BTC harmless Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) and certainly more than Bishop (Tupac Shakur), who has more problems than his friends can ever imagine. Bishop is angry -- a good example of anger being self-inflicted hate -- and when he goes on an almost casual crime spree, shooting people without remorse, we are not only shocked each time, but worried that each death will take his good friends down with him, lower and lower.
Dickerson, a former cinematographer who photographed all of Spike Lee's movies, opens his film cozily with slice-of-life scenes the boys getting up and getting ready for their day. He follows them with such warm scenes as Q flirting with a record-store clerk, his witty bedside conversation with his younger brother and his DJ audition.
The madness that overtakes the second half of "Juice" is a blunt argument against the saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." There's a gun, see, and Bishop feels almost obliged to use it.
CAST: Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, Jermaine Hopkins, Tupac Shakur and Queen Latifah.
DIRECTOR: Ernest R. Dickerson.
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes.