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Menace II Society (Criterion Collection)
A damning, authentic portrayal of youth violence in 1980s and 1990s Los Angeles, Menace II Society receives an upgrade thanks to the Criterion Collection. If you are not familiar, the film follows Kaydee "Caine" Lawson (Tyrin Turner), who lives in the Watts, South Central Los Angeles. The son of drug dealer Tat Lawson (Samuel L. Jackson) and drug addict Karen (Khandi Alexander), Caine is influenced by trigger-happy friend Kevin "O-Dog" Anderson (Larenz Tate) and single-mother Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith) in his late teens. Our protagonist lives with his grandparents, and is unable to answer when grandfather Thomas Lawson (Arnold Johnson) asks him if he cares whether he lives or dies. That becomes a central theme in The Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society, which tackles its subject without sentimentality. The youth that surround Caine are quick to kill and give little regard to their lives and the lives of others. Caine finds himself in a mess early on when O-Dog kills the Korean liquor store owners he intends to rob, and, instead of laying low, O-Dog uses the video of the murders as evidence that he is tough enough to warrant the respect of his peers. A tinderbox for controversy in 1993, Menace II Society is a powerful, relevant film for today's audiences.
Certainly not without flaw, Caine is nonetheless somewhat above the murderous fold of his compatriots. A seminal event in Caine's life is watching Tat murder a debtor during a card game. Tat gets killed by the dope game a few years later, and Karen overdoses and dies for her poison. Caine and his cousin Harold (Saafir) are carjacked one night in L.A., and O-Dog convinces Caine that he must avenge his cousin's murder. Ronnie asks Caine to come with her to Atlanta, and Caine's friends Stacy (Ryan Williams) and Sharif (Vonte Sweet) beg him to leave home and come to Kansas. But Caine, who sleeps beside his handgun, is no saint; carjacking another young black man for his rims and jewelry. He also models his father and begins selling crack to the masses, relying too heavily on O-Dog's peer pressure and ignoring better influences like Ronnie and Sharif.
The Hughes Brothers make Menace II Society authentic by portraying Caine's reality of a broken home and a violent upbringing without sentimentality. Directors Albert and Allen, who also conceived the story, consulted real gang members and Los Angeles youth during production. You can anticipate where the story is headed, and the characters are certainly not always sympathetic, but Menace II Society does not sugarcoat the outcomes for these young black men. Turner provides an excellent performance, as does Pinkett Smith; but supporting characters can be a mixed bag. Tate is bluntly over the top as semi-villain O-Dog, to the point that he becomes a caricature. The violent conclusion provides a poignant rumination on the theme of caring to live, and Menace II Society is sadly not far removed from the youth violence in today's impoverished communities.
Criterion releases the film with a 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that is remastered from a new 4K scan (they also released a 4K Ultra HD release that I was not sent to review). A notable upgrade from the previous Blu-ray, this transfer offers a wonderfully filmic presentation with natural, fluid grain structure and abundant fine-object detail. Close-ups reveal intimate facial features and the textures of costumes and sets; wide shots of the neighborhood are crisp, clean and deep. Colors are nicely saturated, black levels are strong, and highlights never bloom. Other than some brief aliasing, I did not note any technical issues here.
Criterion provides excellent 7.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mixes here. Whatever your preference, each mix offers crisp, clear dialogue, immersive ambient effects and a healthy score and popular music soundtrack. I did not notice any issues like distortion or crowding. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release arrives in attractive digibook packaging, and the included booklet includes an essay and technical information. Criterion has provided an excellent slate of extras to complement the film. The disc includes a 1993 Audio Commentary by Allen Hughes; a 1993 Audio Commentary by Albert Hughes; a Trailer (2 minutes/HD); Deleted Scenes (4 minutes/HD); a Film to Storyboard Comparison (3 minutes/HD); Music Video for 2Pac's "Brenda's Got a Baby" (4 minutes/HD); The Hughes Brothers Archival Interview (11 minutes/HD); Gangsta Vision (22 minutes/HD), an archival piece about the film; Liza Rinzler Select-Scene Commentary (22 minutes/HD), which sees the D.P. discuss the film; Trust and Collaboration (27 minutes/HD), a new piece with remarks from Allen Hughes and Bill Duke; and Capturing Youth (35 minutes/HD), a conversation between Albert Hughes and Screenwriter Tyger Williams.
Relevant and powerful, The Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society is a stark portrait of youth violence in South Central Los Angeles. The film is bleak but involving, and Criterion provides a wonderful package here. The visuals, sound and extras complement this film nicely. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.