I thought now would be as good a time as any to circle back and cover a release that's been reduced to a budget title in many stores. This is a classic of its genre, a film whose structure and countless scenes were the main basis for the hilarious 'Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.' Looking back at the film, one has to wonder how much has really changed almost twenty years later. Though the rage associated with the era has passed, and perhaps the race of some of the gangs still going through these pains now varies city to city, this depiction of the violent street lifestyle and its consequences remains relevant today.
'Menace II Society,' the feature film debut from the Hughes Brothers, begins with a bang, a powerful statement. As we meet our two youthful lead characters (Tyrin Turner as Caine, Larenz Tate as O-Dog), they stand toe to toe with a husband and wife who own a liquor store, who don't much appreciate the business they're being given, perhaps due to prejudice, perhaps due to problems in the past. Words are exchanged, pleasantries never enter the picture, and with one rash action, there's a crime hanging on O-Dog that will never go away, and will shape the rest of his life. As the film rolls on, we see him boasting, openly showing the videotape of the crime he stole from the security camera, in such a carefree manner that it's impossible to believe that it won't come back to haunt him. The kid feels bulletproof, and his openly criminal behavior proves as much.
Though it may seem otherwise, 'Menace II Society' isn't one of the many films glorifying the criminal lifestyle, just as 'American History X' isn't a film glorifying racism. If anything, the two films parallel each other, as their statements and methods of telling a story are quite similar, as they slap viewers in the face telling them exactly how it is, with little room for interpretation. In this film, criminal acts always catch up to those committing them; there's no get out of jail free card, no magic problem solver, or, more importantly, no escape. This film about life in the hood is all about the repercussions coming from one's actions, about respect, family, and justice.
The way the film shows a gradual desensitization to violence, and the vicious circle that it brings, is quite interesting. When we meet Caine, we see a young kid witnessing his father (Samuel L. Jackson) killing a man at a poker table, we're told this is just the first time the kid would see his father take a life before he, too, was gone. Surrounded by drugs, thugs, and death, it's hard for a kid to not be affected, leaving us with the recent high school graduate living with his religious grandparents (Marilyn Coleman, Arnold Johnson), going out all hours of the night to cruise and commit all sorts of misdeeds, a codpiece and eyeliner short of mimicking another cinematic hooligan. From here, with the influence of O-Dog, Caine falls into the never-ending cycle of violence and pain, oblivious to the consequences to his actions, not learning from his mistakes, going back time and again for more.
'Menace II Society' has a hell of a message. It shows that there's an equal and opposite reaction for every action one takes, and that one cannot outrun their past, that eventually the biggest, flashiest peacock in the flock will get clipped sooner for drawing the wrong kind of attention to itself. Sure, this film follows two young kids oblivious to all of this, not realizing their mistakes, following in the doomed footsteps of those who came before them, but what lesson is to be learned from escaping unscathed? That just preaches it's all alright! There is no easy out in life, and that's what we see here. It's all about responsibility, the burdens and consequences not just to oneself, but to those in one's immediate proximity, and as the film shows, no bad deed goes unpunished in the end.
Here, the former music video directors prove to be the right men for the job, creating a timeless depiction of the wrongs that are so easy to fall into, the pratfalls that befall those who associate with fools, innocent or not, and the different life that is readily within reach at any time. It's far too easy and ineffective to just preach what's wrong with society, but by pulling its audience in and slapping them senseless with harsh truth after harsh truth, 'Menace II Society' proves to be one of the best of its genre.
The Disc: Vital Stats
New Line Cinema brings 'Menace II Society' to Blu-ray on a BD25 disc with no packaging frills. There is no main menu screen, just a pop up, and the film begins with no menu prompt or pre-menu bullshit. This disc houses one version of the film, the 97 minute "directors' cut."
'Menace II Society' isn't so much a catalog dump title as it is a no frills, no remastering, just throw the content on the disc and call it a day experience brought to you by New Line Cinema. Sure, this will represent a significant upgrade from DVD quality, but there's really not much going for this release other than the removal of most (but not all) of the issues that DVDs are known for.
This disc has issues from start to finish, some small, some significant, that prevented me from truly enjoying the viewing experience. I don't so much mind the random as hell grain level that would spike and plummet scene to scene, nor the miniscule amounts of dirt and debris, but the light compression issues, noise, and black crush all prove to be too much, especially when they partner up in any scene. Detail levels just aren't strong, as there are far too many scenes where skin tones exhibit no character and look slightly blurry, and I can say that I didn't spot too many sequences where faces were all that alive and sharp. Textures are up and down, with some interesting or solid moments, but again problems abound scene to scene.
Perhaps in about five years we'll see another disc of this film, and it may be a step up. As is, this is not a great disc. No sir, no way, no how.
Don't get all excited looking at the technical specifications for this disc. Yes, it's a lossless 7.1 track, but there are two things it doesn't have: seven or that point one. This track has such a severe and noticeable absence of rear activity that it's almost laughable. Sure, we get the occasional tire screech or odd noise, but this may as well be called 2.0 for the amount of activity that we get in the hour and a half runtime. The channels that actually get activity show very good separation, but some moments of questionable dynamics. Bass levels are pretty poor, considering the scenes and the soundtrack barely register any rumble at all until late in the film, and even that is too light to amount to much of anything. Crowded rooms that all sound like they're only in front of you, yeah, that's exactly what I was looking for in a Blu-ray release. Sign me up!
'Menace II Society' is an almost timeless film, but this disc certainly isn't. It's only two years old, but it barely notches above the titles released in the first days of the format. With poor video, poor audio, and unimpressive extras, this is only worth a look if you can find it for cheap. Worth seeing, but a purchase depends upon the asking price.