Ernest R. Dickerson, Spike Lee‘s excellent cinematographer for all his films from She’s Gotta Have It (1986) through Malcolm X (1992), made his feature directorial debut with this rough-edged yet brutally honest inner-city drama about four Harlem youths whose escalating mischievous shenanigans are threatening to turn at least some of them into hardcore criminals. Omar Epps, in his own feature debut, is terrific as Q, the conflicted teen who isn’t sure if he really wants to be part of the plan being hatched by his lifelong best friend, Bishop (Tupac Shakur), who feels “The Wrecking Crew” (as their gang calls themselves) needs to go to the next level in order to win power and respect (the “juice” of the title). Shakur, also making his official acting debut (after briefly appearing as himself during the Digital Underground sequence in Dan Aykroyd’s wretched Nothing But Trouble), is mesmerizing, exuding charisma and danger as an angry young man going down a very dark path; the rapper turned thespian would only continue to get better with his subsequent roles in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice and especially Vondie Curtis-Hall’s underrated dark comedy, Gridlock’d. Juice isn’t quite as startlingly insightful (or narratively cohesive) as its thematic predecessor, Boyz n the Hood, but it has style and energy to spare, making it quite the respectable showcase for talented artists both in front of and behind the camera who would go on to even greater cinematic achievements.
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