1994, 104 min, R - violence, endless language, drugs, back side nudity.This review is also rated R due to language.
IMDB says...Michael (or Fresh as he's well (sic) known) is a 12-year-old drug pusher who lives in a crowded housing project with his cousins and aunt. His father has become a street bum, but still meets with Fresh on occasion to play chess. Fresh is rather quiet in a crazy world. Fresh's sister is a junkie who sleeps with the dealers who Fresh sells for. As the story progresses Fresh realizes that he doesn't want to sell drugs anymore, he wants out. Written by firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 73rd Virgin says...Boaz Yakin, the director, provides us a strangely brightly lit and organic view of a 12-year-old named Michael but often referred to as “Fresh”. He lives with his aunt and grandma along with an uncounted number of other cousins and siblings in a single unit of public housing. He is deadly serious, thoughtful, inward looking, and exceptional at selling crack for one boss while positioning himself to sell heroin for another. He is so tiny and unthreatening and reliable that one boss calls him his stand up little G.
There is also a little bloom of first love with a local projects girl of roughly Michael’s age who fantasizes about her white mother in the suburbs and invites him in on the fantasy.
This early scene echoes The Panic in Needle Park from 1970. There seems to be a certain loss of professionalism in the heroin cutting business compared to back then.
His mother is unaccounted for and his father, played by Samuel Jackson, is a speed chess savant who hangs out a local park challenging all comers. He claims to have played all the great world chess champion’s over the telephone. He occasionally defeats them in traditional chess, “but put them on the clock and I’ll tear their asses up”. He shows no patience in teaching the game to Michael and lives in a small mobile home and drinks beer.
Michael’s little friends are a bit in awe of him and his skillset but Chucky is jealous and wants in. Luis Lantigua as Chucky is one of the most memorable child characters I’ve ever seen. An amalgamation of every identifiable verbal, attitudinal, or physical cliché of the popular media model of the little gangster. At first he seems a little overwrought or overdone but after you’ve lived with the character for a few minutes you begin to realize he’s dumb as a rock and truly has no idea how ridiculous he is, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. A perfect pawn.
Perhaps it’s my Anglo bias but all of the black and Hispanic characters are convincing but the white characters look like they’re straight outta central casting but rejected for Dirty Dancing. Fluffy 90s hair, tight jeans, and hightops abound, at least on the white guys.
An amazing side note is that even in 1994 there is not a single bit of rap music in the entire soundtrack. I can only assume that’s intentional. Instead there are little bursts of dischordant strings and irritating little filigrees of clarinet or tenor sax that sound painfully like Kenny G, and also quite a few acoustic guitar flourishes. As the end credits rolled I was dismayed to see the soundtrack was by Stewart Copeland, the drummer for the Police. I vaguely remember him doing some good soundtracks but this one is distracting and poor.
As noted above, the production design is brightly lit and not particularly threatening, except for a few sequences with Michael’s crack dealing boss Corky, and his scary street-level supervisor, Jake, played with terrifying shaved-headed, musclebound, nose-flaring menace by Jean LaMarre.
As the story gets moving Michael’s sister is moving out of their project and moving in with one drug dealer or another. Esteban the heroin kingpin wants her to move in with him and Michael sort of encourages her to do the same. In a chilly scene he will come across Esteban admiring his sister’s naked form after injecting her with heroin, and then waxing eloquently about how beautiful it is when a woman is high and compliant. All the time oozing sinister warmth and camaraderie with Michael.
It was around this time I decided Giancarlo Esposito was maybe the best actor I have ever seen. By now he had been in Bob Roberts and Do The Right Thing and a few other roles as well as a hilarious single-season television series called Bakersfield PD. Even though this is a supporting role, his terrifying performance sort of looms over the entire movie.
Eventually Michael loses a friend he hadn't expected to lose (there is a creepy, at first unidentifiable, sound of a child’s leg twitching uncontrollably as they choke on their own blood). And the stage is set for Fresh, using the tools taught to him by his father, to set in motion the ruination of every bad guy in his life.
There isn’t all that much realism in Michael’s carefully laid out plans. It’s sort of like an Agatha Christie script turned on its side and set in Brooklyn. Michael’s been saving money, he’s got all the pieces in place, and he has a plan. His rather cool use and disposal of several pawns is easy to overlook since he’s a kid, so we don’t really ponder the heartlessness of his actions until the movie is over.
Even with the weak soundtrack and somewhat unlikely plot line I can’t keep this out of my list of great movies, partly because of its unique approach, and partly because of the great acting. The conclusion is perhaps a little pat but the final scene where Michael sits across from his father, at first sullen, and then with tears streaming down his face either indicating 1) he knows he’s accidentally set his father up to be killed, or 2) he will never see his father again, or 3) his father will forever be the child and Michael will forever be the adult, however damaged and brutalized he may be. The cut to black screen is pure power.
My 86 year old mother says it’s one of the best movies she’s ever seen. Runs in the family I guess.
Giancarlo Esposito still works constantly; Sean Nelson is still on TV a lot. Jean LaMarre directs and stars in direct-to-video shows under the umbrella of Black Christian Video, usually as Pastor Jones. Luis Lantigua has almost no acting credits. Boaz Yakin doesn’t seem like the busiest guy in showbiz but he directed Remember the Titans so he’s probably got some money in the bank.