“The hunt is on, and you’re the prey.”

Apparently it’s hip, I suppose edgy, to claim that The Godfather Part II is better than the original, and I feel like the same can be said of Menace II Society and its closest analog, Boyz N the Hood. John Singleton’s debut is hailed as an American classic, praised for its direction, acting, writing, and emotional depth. It was one of the first times such subject matter crossed Hollywood screens, and it sparked years of troubled black poor gangster movies, many taking place in South Central, LA, including at least two more Singleton pictures. The Hughes Brothers’ debut, Menace II Society, seems to be one of these movies, observing the life and dangers of these troubled youth in a world of drugs, guns, and violence. I’m sure I first heard of this movie through Boyz N the Hood, and some people feel that it’s more successful in achieving what Boyz did.

I will say Menace II Society is a good movie. It’s heartfelt and intense, gritty in its portrayal of life and completely unforgiving. Characters are not black-and-white, and there’s the presence of death at every angle. There are also a few familiar faces here, including Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Duke, and Charles Dutton, who I thought was the best part of the movie. However, there are a few few huge problems I had while watching it, even though in the end I did think it was solid. Right off the bat there’s voiceover, and the subject matter made me think of City of God — you know, the whole Goodfellas deal. City of God was more successful, as voiceover is a very, very delicate thing, and it was also more successful at structure.

Both movies have disjointed and ugly plot structures. They’re coming of age stories, but so is Boyz N the Hood, which is paced and scripted incredibly well. Menace II seems to jump around from moment to moment, never focusing on any of the many secondary characters, not even O-Dog, long enough to get a good feel for them, or get invested in. The story is that there is no story, it’s just a slice of life, which is fine, but in this case had massive bearing on where the characters ended up at the credits, and what I felt about it.

The thing is that it’s more of an unfocused narrative — the writer attempted to fit an entire world into 97 minutes, and 97 minutes just isn’t enough. Throughout the whole thing Caine, our main acharacter, seemed aloof as he drifted on; at one point his grandfather asks him if he wants to live or die, in reference to his constant risking of life on the streets. Caine answers, “I don’t know,” and while that’s a pretty heavy moment that carries weight throughout, it also characterizes him the most. He lives fast and does what he wants, while being pulled away by Jada Pinkett’s character and his grandparents, who he lives with (his parents had died).

What’s going on here is the approach the writer and the Hughes Brothers took, to observe Caine and the rest of the cast without judging them conclusively (Caine is a good guy, but he does rob at gunpoint and hang up on a girl he got pregnant). In the opening, Caine watches in horror as O-Dog murders the innocent albeit racist Korean grocers, and can’t stand to see the surveillance footage that the killer proudly totes around. But he’s forced to accept it — this is the life, and there’s no escaping. Indeed, the two characters with an eye to move out are killed by the end, as if some higher power knew, and couldn’t let it happen.

So it’s a movie that’s heavier on theme than it is on the dramatic aspect — we see familiar but compelling things, like “Hey man you have a life to lose, you gotta get out of here” and all that, but because the characters are designed this way, it doesn’t hit as hard as the before mentioned Boyz N the Hood, which balanced theme with emotion to a great end. Tre might just be in every scene; it’s very nearly a third person limited narrative, and yet we have a good idea of who Doughboy, Ricky, and Furious are, so that when their characters are measured in the film’s most heated moments toward the end, it’s overwhelming but organic and logical. Nothing comes as a surprise that shouldn’t, and we care about everything that happens every step of the way.

In the end, it’s a matter of expectations. Go into Menace II Society expecting a gritty look at life on the streets with touches of poigniancy every now and again. Don’t expect, like I did, another Boyz N the Hood, though the two share many elements. And if you can get over the voiceover, which as we discover is more in line with Sunset Boulevard‘s, there’s not much else to complain about, other than the spotty and sometimes over-the-top acting. Charles Dutton’s scene is great though, and the violence was completely unexpected. The Hughes Brothers are really channeling Paul Verhoeven here, but when a gangster gets shot to pieces here, nobody’s laughing.