Tagged Criminal

Menace II Society and Visions of a 1990s Clinton Nightmare

Menace II Society. 1993. Directed by The Hughes Brothers. Screenplay by Tyger Williams.
Starring Tyrin Turner, Larenz Tate, June Kyoto Lu, Toshi Toda, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Johnson, Glenn Plummer, Reginald Ballard, Khandi Alexander, Jada Pinkett Smith, Saafir, MC Eiht, Pooh Man, Vonte Sweet, Cynthia Calhoun, Clifton Powell, Ryan Williams, Too $hort, Dwayne Barnes, & Bill Duke. Warner Bros.
Rated R. 97 minutes.

I’ve always found the situation for black people in America fascinating, in a tragic way because of how they’ve been treated from day one. What so many don’t realize, or care to consider, is the fact so much of what happened in the past is what informed and created the conditions of modern day ghettos, underprivileged neighbourhoods, high crime rates, and more. Similar to how the terrible treatment of Natives in Canada has also done the same thing for their culture and their people for generations.
So for a white guy from the far East Coast of Canada who does actually want to empathize, a film like Menace II Society is not simply a bit of crime-thriller entertainment from the hoods of South Central Los Angeles, it is a true learning experience. The way through to truth is often paved through great literature. I believe wholeheartedly the same is true for film. And that being the case, this Hughes Brothers movie brings us into the world of young gang bangers, the unhinged types. The sort of young men that see death on daily basis, so their own has become less and less threatening with each body dropped. With a solid screenplay from Tyger Williams, impressively gritty cinematography that takes under the surface of the gang world, the Hughes Brothers make what could easily be a gratuitously shocking, empty crime-thriller with a few shootouts. It is something much, much more than any of that.
Something I do know positively? The characters out of Menace II Society are the types that’d make someone like Hilary Clinton terrified. At least the Hilary in ’96, anyways.
To me one of the largest parts of the message Albert and Allen Hughes convey, alongside Tyger Williams and his honest screenplay, is the fact that areas like those in South Central – the same ones people like O-Dog (Tate) stalk with their predatory, gang banging mentality – they are endemic to anywhere the socioeconomic game is stacked against a certain group. Particularly, in places like Compton, Inglewood, the black community has been dealt a ton of shit hands over the course of their history in America. We know this no better than now in a day and age where, stunningly, racism still exists, thriving in larger than you’d like to believe pockets. Some places it swells ready to burst into extreme unrest, probably violence. Menace II Society captures a microcosm of what America is still going through, 23 years later as of this writing.
Furthermore, the Hughes Brothers and Williams make a point about the recurring, systemic cycle of violence that begins to perpetuate itself within these gangland territories. We start in the beginning with Caine (Turner) and follow him through a life plagued by crime. But what people – mainly, let’s face it, us white people – forget is that like any learned behaviour, the attitude of a criminal is fostered, nurtured. Children are not born bad. Like Caine, whose entire outlook on life is informed by the violence of his father Tat Lawson (Samuel L. Jackson); Caine even remarks through voice-over that “that was the first time Id ever seen my father kill anybody, but it wasnt the last. I got used to it, though.” So just how any other male child would learn how to be a ‘man’ from his father, Caine can only work off the presumptive, reactionary violence Tat showed him. And like his father, his career ends up being selling drugs in the streets.
In addition, the end of the film involving Caine and Ronnie’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) little boy directly speaks to the cycle of violence and murder of the inner city. Her boy and Caine as a boy are paralleled well in this screenplay. Before that we’re treated to an almost exact replica of the young Caine’s earlier scene on the steps with friends of his father, as Ronnie’s boy does the same with a grown Caine and his crew. So we can almost see right into the future – a sequel with the kid all grown up, Ronnie older now and world weary as her son bangs himself to death in the streets of the hood. That’s the saddest, most tragic part is how we effectively watch as the cycle revs itself up for another spin.
Finally, the Hughes’ and Williams make their biggest point, spoken clearly by Caine at the end, in the fact that usually when young men gang banging figure out the error of their ways, and that getting out would’ve been the best chance of living a full life, it is far too late. The end of Caine’s story is the end of far too many black men in cities and neighbourhoods like those in the film.
Caine: “All I had to do was catch some fool slippin‘. Jack his ass.”
Above all else the raw style of the Hughes Brothers directorial choices. Added to that is the excellently captured cinematography courtesy of Lisa Rinzler. Side note, I’d not realized after all these years of watching Menace that it was filmed by a woman; awesome discovery. Her style as cinematographer is great to look at, from the wide exterior shots of the various neighbourhoods in South Central L.A. to the closed in, shadowy interiors of the housing projects, the cars readying to kick a drive-by into gear, the neon lit businesses in the dark of night on the dangerous streets. Aside from the unapologetic style of the screenplay, Rinzler’s lens allows us a genuine peek inside the world of these gang bangers. The look of the film is realistic, as is the overall atmosphere. Even in more stylized scenes, there’s never any surreal portions, dream sequences, none of that. The screenplay keeps this story one hundred percent rooted in the grim reality of these gangsters, as Rinzler helps with her well photographed work to captivate us visually.
This is one of those 5-star cinematic experiences that not only brings you into a world possibly foreign to you, it further acts as a learning experience through fiction. Some of the best pieces of art, whether film or otherwise, examine issues that are near to our hearts. For many in America, in 1993 upon this film’s release and still to this day, the events and characters of the film are, unfortunately, not too far from what they know in their own lives. And though it offers no answers, no ready-made solutions, nothing concrete, Menace II Society absolutely does offer a tough dose of medicine for those not in the know. Like I said at the start, for a white guy from a relatively decent little town in Canada this movie provides a perspective I’ve never had the chance to see or know up close. I’m certainly glad the Hughes Brothers made this film because it was and still is a valuable film experience that relates directly to an understanding of certain parts of our world.


Frank White, Republican Nightmare: Abel Ferrara’s King of New York

King of New York. 1990. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Screenplay by Nicholas St. John.
Starring Christopher Walken, Larry Fishburne, David Caruso, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, Janet Julian, Joey Chin, Giancarlo Esposito, & Paul Calderon. Seven Arts/Lions Gate Home Entertainment.
Rated R. 106 minutes.

POSTER Abel Ferrara is an all-around exciting, unique filmmaker. He usually goes for subject matter and thematic material most other directors wouldn’t dare touch. Often, he likes to concern himself with the law, both sides of it; sometimes each as corrupt as the other. Mostly, Ferrara explores boundaries. He crosses them, runs to them and sees how close he can get, or how far past he can go without setting the whole film afire. From Ms. 45 to Bad Lieutenant to more fantastical stuff such as The Addiction, his films are incendiary. They’re bound to light people up, causing discussion, argument, all kinds of various angry sentiment from those who find his movies garbage, and equally from those who love his work. Either way, he is a controversial, raw talent whose films never fail to entertain me and manage to probe some of the darker spots beneath our social veneer.
King of New York is almost an answer to the call that came six years later when Hilary Clinton referred to young black folk as super predators. Of course, Ferrara was ahead of the game. But the character of Frank White is like the Conservative-Republican nightmare: a white man out there running the streets, acting like a complete sociopath, murdering, and feeling absolutely nothing for the disaster he causes from one moment to the next. Whereas all those rich white Conservatives are worrying about the supposed young black guys out terrorizing New York City, the real king and the real monster is just like them. And that’s ultimately the message, the nihilistic message, is that while the young black guys are often out there actually taking care of their friends, their neighbourhood, the kids too unfortunate not to get to play a few arcade games, Frank is out just amassing money for the sake of it. He had other options. Instead, Mr. White’s chosen to be a drain on society, and remains a white plague in snappy business suits.
An interesting moment is when Frank talks business, re: cocaine, with an associate while standing next to a child in a hospital bed. While a doctor walks past, Frank hushes his tone. But he couldn’t care any less about a developing brain hearing him do a drug deal. It doesn’t even occur to him, his criminal mind, that doing anything drug related, even talk business, is inappropriate for when children are present. Here he is a big shot-type looking flashy in his nice suits, going to fancy parties in nice hotels and so on, yet the way he acts is just like a low life drug peddler selling product out of his house while his kids run around in diapers.
The nihilism of this film is not simply embodied in Frank. It’s also embodied in the police. Specifically, Caruso’s character, Gilley, is adamant he can’t keep on living in a world where White gets to kill and kill and kill with no ultimate legal recourse ever coming down. That’s not admitting Frank has the power. That’s more so them admitting they’ve failed, that their power is not big enough to stop someone like him. So the whole remainder of the film after they’ve made their decisions really becomes extremely dark because there’s no moral line anymore. Gangster movies centered on the gangsters instead of the law usually try to at least draw some kind of sentiment out to help you relate to the characters, no matter how bad they are – Tony Soprano, Henry Hill, among many, many more. However, King of New York shows us there’s an absence of lines in Ferrara’s New York. Nothing at all. Frank often wears a grey suit, and so you can see him sitting in that grey area. That’s where he lives. While the cops are new to this sort of thing, he’s a permanent resident of the grey zone where laws, morals, emotions, none of that matters. Only money, power, fear. And above all else? Bullets. How much you can make the next man bleed, how much money you can take from somebody else, by any means necessary.
The epitome of Frank White: in one scene a masked man gets the jump on Frank in a stairwell, but Frank tosses the woman he’s with (a black woman just so we’ve noted that about equal opportunity Mr. White) at him, letting her take some bullets while he gets a couple rounds off himself. This scene is the very essence of his character.
On top of that Ferrara nihilism I’m always trying to figure out what he and writer Nicholas St. John are attempting to say with this film. There’s something – a bunch of somethings – in there about government, socialism, morality, every bit mashed into an excellent and disturbingly delicious crime tale. But the way Frank comes out of jail headlong into recruiting young (black) men into his fold, turning potential muggers on a subway train into his new business associates. Despite some of the cops and their willingness to cross lines in order to finally get Frank, they definitely represent a more proletariat-like group. Gilley even discusses how they make fairly little in relation to how much they risk their lives for the city, versus Frank’s living the high life. And at the same time, Frank does own the means of production in terms of the drug game. Although he still hangs out anywhere, no matter the class. He goes from high society mixers to sitting in a rundown crackhouse with a bunch of people dancing, high as fuck. So while Frank does sort of represent that capitalist enterprise he’s also apart from it, particularly after his indeterminate amount of time in jail. Likely a good stretch. Basically, it’s that class of people Frank is trying to break into with their ballroom parties, their black-and-white events, who represent the top of the food chain. Because though Frank runs the city in a sense, he is a gangster. Pure and simple. His dream is to fund a hospital, but he just can’t manage to outrun himself, or the life he’s chosen to lead. And perhaps that’s the ultimate message, not that there’s this hierarchy of corruption. Rather, Ferrara and St. John give us Frank as an example of those who rise from rags to riches in an underhanded way, the capitalist in his many forms, that eventually burn out rather than fade away. Just like the big capitalist money makers when they go for broke then bankrupt an economy, Frank never admits to anyone else, especially not himself, that he is a monster. Yet he is monstrous.
In a film that’s desperately bleak and has its flaws, Christopher Walken is iconic. Even The Notorious B.I.G had to talk about Frank White. That’s because there are all kinds of gangsters in cinema history, from old school Sicilian mobsters, to the Irish mafia, to Armenians, and every other ethnicity/culture possible. As well as the fact there’s a ton of more contemporary gangster stuff, including the now cult-famous Scarface with a whopping central performance out of Pacino. In the midst of great performances and others run of the mill, Walken makes Frank into an otherworldly type gangster. His style is slick, weird. Walke himself is strange, in the best sort of way, and he gives that to Frank. While also allowing him to be fierce. Frank is terrifying at times when you can honestly feel that coldness in his heart breath foggy into the world.
Then there’s the fact he’s a white guy, yet he fits in so connected, so genuine with all his black crew and friends. Meanwhile, he also fits in with the upper class types. He navigates worlds like a specter hovering above everything and everyone. That’s my best instance of providing an example for how the idea of capitalism (& all that other bullshit I mentioned) plays into this movie. Frank is the personification of capitalism, of money and capital, which is the ultimate universal, so that’s how he navigates all the different nooks and crannies of the streets in New York and its upper echelons with the fancy ballroom dancing and the martinis and the Senators. In the end, he finds nothing but death. Whereas Frank started the film getting out of jail and riding in a limo, he experiences the end – his end – in back of a taxi, far from the glamorous life he’d pictured.
This is a flawed movie at times, mostly in terms of its pacing. That being said, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is a 5-star masterpiece. Amazing films don’t have to be perfect to be the greatest. There is no perfect film ever made in the history of cinema, despite there also being a lot of (in my opinion) 5-star works. This has thematic content worth digging into below all the sleaze and the violence and the nihilistic tone. There’s a palpable atmosphere which Ferrara achieves, slick and darkly vibrant. Also, a realism that bleeds through despite the hyperviolent sequences. The talented cast allows for smaller characters to be more than they are on paper, including an excitable role out of Laurence Fishburne, whose charisma is beyond clear here. And finally, Walken achieves one of the best performances out of his catalogue, definitely in the top five.
This is one gangster flick I’ll never, ever forget.

Dealer’s Refn-Inspired Parisian Crime

Dealer. 2014. Directed by Jean Luc Herbulot. Screenplay by Samy Baaroun & Herbulot.
Starring Dan Bronchinson, Elsa Madeleine, Salem Kali, Bruno Henry, Hervé Babadi, Dimitri Storoge, Fatima Adoum, Didier Mérigou, Emmanuel Bonami and Franck Boss. Multipass Productions/Mad Films-Mi.
Unrated. 75 minutes.

Ever since Nicolas Winding Refn brought the Copenhagen drugworld out in all its gritty, raw glory with Pusher twenty years ago, many other filmmakers have tried their best to attain the same level of magic with their own tales of the mean streets in various countries. Most recently, I loved Gerard Johnson’s Hyena, which definitely pulled from Refn yet kept its own vibe in tact with lots of dubious police morality, a few nasty splashes of blood and plenty of the ole ultraviolence.
And now, we have Jean Luc Herbulot coming at us with the 2014 crime-thriller Dealer. There are absolutely bits and pieces of the film which exhibit influences of Refn. At the same time, there’s a little more action here, more dialogue, and certainly there’s the differing narration in this movie which sets it apart from any of its influences, Refn or otherwise. And while it isn’t a perfect crime-thriller there are a ton of impressive sequences, well-written scenes, as well as debilitating moments of violent action which propel us into the French underworld, filled with odd and quirky characters, drug dealing pieces of shit, murderers, and a whole lot more. Herbulot may not succeed on every note, hitting a few that call to mind too much other films. But outside of that, Dealer is a lot of fun – grim fun, at that. If what you’re looking for is another guided tour through the drug life of a middle man dealer in the gutters of Paris, or what could be any major city with a taste for illegal substances, then this is certainly a film you don’t want to pass up.
Always dreaming of going to Australia with his daughter, drug dealing Dan (Dan Bronchinson) is in a bad way. His life isn’t exactly stellar, trying to navigate a rocky relationship with separated wife Léna (Maïa Bonami), sleeping with a prostitute named Chris (Elsa Madeleine), all the while attempting to exit the cocaine business to make his dreams come true.
When Dan is offered a once in a lifetime opportunity he must remain a little longer as a cocaine dealer. Except in a twist of fate, the drugs he’s given – worth 70,000 francs – end up disappearing, which leads Dan and his tenuous associates on a fast thrill ride through the underbelly of Paris looking for the culprit. And worst of all, his family finds themselves in the cross-hairs of his disgusting business, and the conclusion will be tough; for every last person involved.
One sequence I loved is where Dan walks the streets, mourning the loss of his cocaine and stressing over where to get the money he owes for it. His red jacket is the only colour visible in the frame for a while, as he smokes and pushes through crowds of people. Best of all, he sees everything from cellphones to shoes to jackets, and more, with price tags next to them. Tallying up how much he’d have to steal and hawk in order to make up the 70,000 francs, which is the equivalent of nearly $100,000 in American and Canadian dollars. This whole sequence is great and gives us more than just the raw style director Herbulot goes for most of the film; not to say I don’t enjoy that, it’s just nice to see more than one technique displayed.
Above all, it’s the intense pacing of the film I enjoyed. Whereas many crime-thrillers, particularly those with twisty plots, sometimes find themselves with a slow pace due to heavy dialogue, too much exposition, or any number of issues, Dealer succeeds in keeping things fast paced, exciting, from the very beginning straight into the finale. That’s one thing that helps Herbulot distance his movie from Refn – not that he needs to, but you know what I mean. The fact Herbulot keeps the film speeding from scene to scene is impressive work, as we could easily find ourselves bogged down in so many details, too many characters, too much violence. However, this never ever happens. Not once was I looking at my watch, as has happened in the past with other similar films. In fact, the 75 minute runtime whittles away incredibly quick, and I was surprised during the final 15 minutes when I realized everything was almost finished. The lasting impact of the few final scenes is especially resonant. Again, it brings to mind quite a bit of the way Refn ended his first Pusher. Although, I found the writing here from both Herbulot and Samy Baaroun leaves Dealer in a much more intense, chaotic, and even scary place. Refn did a much better job on the whole, but Herbulot could certainly pick up and make his own Pusher sequel, that’s how well executed this film comes off.
With a few pieces I thought could’ve been fine tuned a little more, Dealer is still a 3.5 out of 5 star crime-thriller. Plenty of action, lots of the grime and grit we seem to expect these days from stories such as this, and on top of that the performances are full of energy, which matches the pace Herbulot and Baaroun set with their screenplay. You can certainly do a whole lot worse if you’re looking for a thrilling crime film to pass the time. Apparently the lead actor has experience in this sort of world, quoted as saying almost 70% of it is straight out of his own life. So that’s another wild aspect. Regardless, this holds excitement, brutality, and even the rare touching moment near the end. Dealer certainly keeps up the future of crime films, joining the ranks of Refn, Gerard Johnson and others who have depicted the criminal underbelly of the world in a highly stylized and intriguing fashion. I’ll be keeping Herbulot on my radar from now on. Hopefully he’ll follow up with something equally as impressive.