Director: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Writer: Tyger Williams
Starring: Tyrin Turner, Larenz Tate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Duke
Year: 1993
Duration: 97 mins
Country: America 
BBFC Certification: 18

A quick glance at IMDB will show that The Hughes Brothers many not have the largest filmography in the world, yet brevity of content does not necessarily equate to lack of quality (just ask Terrence Malick). While the twin brother’s work in the early to mid 2000s were never slam dunk successes (especially the Denzel Washington helmed The Book of Eli, which proved to be a rather expensive mis-fire) their rich visual style always spoke to the fact that, despite uneven narratives, we were watching the work of two very talented filmmakers. Far more successful, for example, was From Hell, their 2003 adaption of Alan Moore’s epic Jack the Ripper graphic novel, that successfully married a kinetic visual style to a richly dark evocation of Victorian London (which also boasted the most unnerving Ian Holm performance outside of that brief moment in The Lord of the Rings). Despite their abundant talent, however, it is clear that The Hughes Brothers have suffered slightly from ‘difficult second album’ syndrome throughout their careers, as it is still Menace II Society, their unflinchingly raw debut from 1993, that proves to be the most cohesive and successful entry of their cinematic output.

Made in the wake of the L.A. Riots in 1992 (although the film never directly references them), Menace II Society tells a tale that, when viewed today, feels almost crushingly familiar. Caine (Tyrin Turner) has been brought up in world dominated by drugs, gangs and crime. It is therefore of little surprise to find out that, as a young man, this is the world in which he remains trapped. Yet there is something different about Caine, especially in comparison to his psychopathic best friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) which makes us hope that this is a world from which he might be able to escape, possibly with the help of the beautiful Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith). Yet an horrendous crime, as well as escalating gang violence, threatens any chance he has to free himself from the dark and dangerous confines of his existence. 

It is a familiar tale to be sure and the journey that The Hughs Brothers (alongside writer Tyger Williams) takes us on offers no shocking revelations or twists that make Menace II Society stand out among the hundreds of similar crime films and TV shows made both before and since. Narratively at least, a significant degree of tension is sucked out of the film as you feel you already know exactly where it is heading; you may not know how you are going to get there, but the destination still feels resoundingly predictable.

In other hands, then, Menace II Society mighty very well have turned out to be an uninspired genre effort, yet with The Hughes Brothers behind the helm, the film brilliantly transcends the limitations of its familiar plot. The directors infuse the film with a grittily involving documentary style reality that achieves the very rare feat of making naturalism look and feel cinematic – dollies, Steadicam’s and ambitious tracking shots are all employed to elevate the film beyond its meagre budget. This would be impressive stuff in the hands of a mature film maker, but to learn that both brothers were only twenty years old when the film was made makes their achievement all the more impressive.

Cutting their teeth on music videos (including several made with 2Pac) their influences are clear to see – and none more so than the work of Scorsese. The ghost of Goodfellas, released just three years previously, haunts the film from its tracking shots to the lead character’s narration. Yet Scorsese’s cinema permeates Menace II Society in other ways too.  The narration also harks back to the loneliness and isolation of Travis Bickle while Mean Streets, with its similar focus on the gritty, rough and violent lower echelons of crime where glamour is nowhere to be found, feels in some ways like a spiritual forbearer. 

This is not to suggest that The Hughes Brothers made a film with no original stamp of their own. The directors of Menace II Society take the techniques and influences of Scorcese and De Palma and infuse the film with their own sensibilities and experiences in order to create something that, to them, felt as real and as honest as possible.

Watching the film today, it is remarkable how unsentimental Menace II Society actually is. Made as a nihilistic answer to the more redemptive storyline found in Boyz n the Hood, which perhaps strode too close to a neat and tidy Hollywood formula to completely ring true, Menace II Society presents its audience with a world which feels authentically, and at times, horrifyingly real. The antagonist here isn’t so much other characters but rather the world and environment into which the characters are born, a grim reality fuelled by violence and toxic masculinity.

This visceral sense of reality is helped along not only by the location work and free flowing (and at times improvised ) dialogue but by acts of violence that feel brutally genuine. Take, for example, an early shooting in the film, where the victim is left dying in the street, twitching and jerking as blood pools out across the tarmac. Menace II Society wasn’t a film sanitised by Hollywood, made to be digested by middle America; instead, this is The Hughes Brother’s attempt to do what Scorsese did, to document a world with which they were familiar with raw and brutal honesty, while never forgetting the desire to drench that world with a stylish, cinematic sheen. 

The film’s brave and focused direction is helped and supported by a strong, mostly young cast. Tyrin Turner does a great job as the film’s protagonist Caine, where his violent acts always feel like they emerge from a place of necessity and grim duty, as opposed to Larenz Tate’s O-Dog, who happily indulges in horrific acts with an almost terrifying, casual indifference. The young cast’s inexperience does reveal itself at times, but they are ably helped along by an incredibly strong and more mature supporting cast, featuring the likes of Samual L. Jackson, Charles S. Dutton and Bill Duke.

Almost thirty years after its initial release, Menace II Society still has the power the shock and move. Yet its plot leaves little to the imagination, adhering to beats and tropes that were not only staples at the time its release but have become even more entrenched as the decades have rolled on. Time certainly hasn’t diluted its message, which unfortunately still remains relevant, but may have diluted its impact. Take that in your stride, however, and you’ll allow yourself to be swept along in one of the most impressive and memorable directorial debuts of the Nineties.  

Film:

Menace II Society is being released by the Criterion Collection. In the US, the film was part of Criterion’s inaugural line up of 4K releases but in the UK we are only getting the Blu ray version. Rest assured though, the Blu Ray, which comes from exactly the same source as the 4K disc (a restoration approved by the film’s DoP and Albert Hughes) looks absolutely fantastic, presenting a wonderful filmic image with lovely contrast and decent grain. Fine detail is sharp and clear with the image punching beautifully in all the right places. It is annoying about the lack of a 4K release but the Blu Ray disc itself more than holds its own. The sound across the disc is equally fantastic. I didn’t experience the full 7.1 DTS mix but the mix I listened to was no slouch. Overall, a great A/V presentation.

The extras are as follows:

  • Two audio commentaries from 1993 featuring directors Albert and Allen Hughes
  • New selected-screen commentary featuring Rinzler
  • Gangsta Vision, a 2009 featurette on the making of the film
  • New conversation among Albert Hughes, screenwriter Tyger Williams, and film critic Elvis Mitchell
  • New conversation among Allen Hughes, actor and filmmaker Bill Duke, and Mitchell
  • Interview from 1993 with the directors
  • Music video from 1991 for 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” directed by the Hughes brothers
  • Deleted scenes
  • Film-to-storyboard comparison
  • Trailer

Commentaries: Criterion present us with two separate commentaries from each of the Hughes Brothers, recorded around the time of the film’s release in 1993. As the brothers tend to separate directing duties while making films (Allen deals more with the actors while Albert concerns himself more with the technical side) it comes as no surprise that Allen’s commentary focuses more on the story and themes of the film while Albert’s commentary goes into more technical detail. Both are great listens, however. Out of the two, Allen seems a bit more loquacious and at ease talking about the film, while Albert’s commentary comes off a bit more mumbly and shy. Due to both brothers covering different topics, not much of the same ground gets covered twice, which means that both comms are esstential and incredibly informative listens for fans of the film.

Conversation between Albert Hughes, Tyger Williams and Elvis Mitchell: In the first of two half hour three-way conversations (both hosted by film critic Elvis Mitchell) Albert Hughes and Tyger Williams chat generally about Menace II Society. Hughes and William’s more fun reminisces soon turn to more serious topics and reveal how the film was fulled by anger. They also candidly talk about what they felt didn’t work in the film (certain slow-mo aspects for example) as well as making valid points about modern African American cinema and the need to tell different stories beyond stereotypes and cliches.

Conversation between Allen Hughes, Bill Duke and Elvis Mitchell: This second conversation begins with a discussion about how Bill Duke got involved in the film (he had retired from acting in 1991) and his experience working with the two young directors. The discussion then moves on to explore other topics, such as Bill Duke’s career and the toxic masculinity that ripples through Menace II Society. The conversation ends with a discussion about the challenges of being an African American film maker (Duke was continually questioned during the promo tour for the 1993 comedy The Cemetery Club why he, as an African American film maker, was making a film about three white woman…questions of a similar nature that were never asked of Spielberg when he made The Colour Purple, for example). Both of these three way conversations are great watches and well worth your time.

Scene Select Commentary: DoP Liza Rinzler provides a 20 minute commentary over certain scenes in the film, discussing not only the influences and techniques used in Menace II Society, but also offering some background info on how she came to work with The Hughes Brothers. Slightly on the technical side, as is to be expected, but still an interesting listen.

Gangster Vision: This is far more of a standard EPK look at Menace II Society. However, it goes into more detail about the historical background to the film, as well as giving a voice to come of the key cast/crew members who haven’t yet been heard from on the disc, such as Larenz Tate. This makes a great companion piece to the other extras and is well worth watching.

1993 Interview: This is a short, 10 minute interview with The Hughes Brothers from 1993. This is fairly interesting and is only let down by its dated visual attempts to make the interview feel more ‘urban’.

The rest of the disc is rounded out with two deleted scenes, a trailer and a stylishly cinematic music video for 2Pac.

Disc/Extras:

Menace II Society
Film
Disc/Extras
4.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

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