Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Juice (1992)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - Power. Respect. How far will you go to get it?

Q. Raheem. Bishop. Steel. They're four Harlem friends who spend their days hanging out and looking for a way to get the power and respect they call Juice. Q hopes to earn respect by becoming a scratch 'n' mix DJ. Bishop has a deadlier plan. He wants to take it through an armed robbery. And he wants his crew to be with him.

Ernest R. Dickerson, the acclaimed cinematographer whose collaborations with Spike Lee include Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, makes his directorial debut with this powerful morality take steeped in '90s urban lifestyle.

Features the cutting-edge music of Eric B. & Rakim, Naughty by Nature, Big Daddy Kane, Salt N' Pepa and others. Juice has the juice.

Director: Ernest Dickerson
Cast: Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain, Cindy Herron
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 11 chapters; rated R; 94 min.; $29.99; street date 1/16/01.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/F

When Juice hit screens in 1992, some critics disliked it because it strayed from the normal “tough life in the hood” form of drama popular at the time. To be certain, much of the film presented existence in Harlem along those lines, but as the movie progressed, it became more traditional, with much of the final act presented as something of a horror film.

I saw the movie during its theatrical run and I rather enjoyed it, largely because it offered something different. I liked the fact it seemed to view itself as a movie and not a documentary.

However, nine years later, I’m less enthusiastic about the film. Juice tells the story of four teens who aren’t exactly stellar citizens - they frequently skip school, they shoplift, they smoke and drink - but who haven’t become actual thugs. However, the group’s two leaders - handsome Raheem (Khalil Kain) and edgy Bishop (Tupac Shakur) - decide they should rob a local convenience store. Tubby Steel (Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins) probably doesn’t want to become a true criminal, but he’s too wimpy to go against the flow. Q (Omar Epps) puts up the most vocal resistance to the plan, but not because he seems opposed to robbery; no, he just has a DJing contest in which he needs to participate the night of the planned heist.

Unfortunately, he decides to go along with the activity, and all goes well until Bishop shoots the store’s proprietor for no apparent reason (other than the fact he’s a psycho). After that, the situation rapidly declines as Bishop loses his already-tenuous grasp on reality - he buys into the “thug life” myth big time.

The movie remains fairly entertaining, but it contains quite a few problems that bothered me during this viewing. For one, we never got a really good feel for the kids. My one-word descriptions size them up pretty well. They all appear fairly aimless though nice, but that’s about it. We see a hint of domestic problems in Bishop’s home through a quick view of his vegged-out father, but this aspect of his life is never explored. We also feel as though Q is the one with the most potential, but that’s just because he fits that slot; these kinds of movies always have the smart one who’s on the rise, and Q best meets the criteria, though it’s unclear if his hoped-for DJ career will get him anywhere.

At its heart, Juice wants to provide social commentary as we’re supposed to see the respect and authority gained by anyone with “juice” - power and dominance. In a way, the movie comes across as a slam on peer pressure, since it’s that form of influence that causes a lot of the negative actions. But the main problem with its arguments stem from the fact that only one participant - Bishop - really goes over the edge, and his issues seem a lot deeper than simple peer pressure; he’s clearly a nutbag and he likely would have blown even without the pressures of urban life and the easy access to guns.

Juice marked the directorial debut of Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee’s longtime cinematographer, and it bears the mark of someone with visual strengths but without much storytelling skill. The film looks quite good, as Dickerson creates a moody and atmospheric appearance to the setting. As I’ll note in my comments about the quality of the DVD, I thought things sometimes seemed a little dark, but for the most part it’s a nicely-composed film that worked best as a thriller.

As far as the acting went, Tupac established himself as a real cinematic presence with his work here. Perhaps his scary attitude seemed less surprising when we later learned of his shadier dealings - when Juice arrived, Tupac was a virtual unknown - but he still managed to inhabit the creepy world of Bishop effectively; his spooky performance is easily the best part of the movie. The others present varying degrees of decent work, but none of them stand out from the crowd. By the way, it feels really odd to see Samuel L. Jackson in such a small role; it’s not the “blink and you’ll miss him” territory of Nicolas Cage in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, but it’s still a very minor part compared to his current stature.

Special mention has to go to the hairstyles seen in Juice. The funky ‘dos of 1992 have not aged well, to say the least. Frankly, they really detracted from the story; the picture looked so insanely dated and silly that I had more trouble becoming involved in it. I recognize that films from different eras always run this risk, but the fashions observed in Juice seemed particularly absurd.

Juice isn’t a bad film, but it’s a muddled and mediocre piece that tries to span two genres and fails. It doesn’t satisfy as a thriller, and it doesn’t work as a “true-to-life” examination of ghetto life. The movie occasionally sparkles due to a self-assured and scary performance by Tupac Shakur, but without him, the picture would have been forgotten long ago.

The DVD:

Juice appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, singe-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the movie seemed eminently watchable, but a variety of concerns made it look less than terrific.

Of all the elements, sharpness presented the most consistently strong aspect. The picture seemed crisp and detailed throughout the movie, and I noticed virtually no instances of soft of fuzzy images. Edge enhancement appeared minimal as I saw few signs of moiré effects or jagged edges. Print flaws also presented only minor concerns. Some light speckling occurred from time to time, and I also witnessed minor instances of grain and grit plus a blotch or two, but the movie appeared largely devoid of substantial defects. Note that some scenes displayed fairly heavy grain, but those examples clearly resulted from stylistic choices and weren’t due to true print flaws.

Colors were generally decent but seemed erratic. Portions of the movie looked somewhat flat and lifeless, while other scenes displayed hues that appeared a bit runny and oversaturated. For example, examine the orange jackets worn by Raheem and his girlfriend early in the film; they looked excessively bold. Reds - particularly in lighting - also seemed rather heavy. Black levels came across as fairly drab and bland without great depth or intensity, and shadow detail often seemed overly thick. Films that feature African-American actors often suffer from the latter problem, but its presence here seems odd; the issue usually occurs because of contrasting light levels used for white and black actors, but since almost the entire cast of Juice is black, the problem makes no sense here. The lighting is so weak that we consistently have trouble seeing Omar Epps’ face; he’s just two eyes bouncing beneath a big hat. Despite these concerns, Juice usually seemed watchable, but the problems forced it down to “B-“ level.

Somewhat better is the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Not surprisingly, music dominated the affair, and the track featured a strong forward bias; the front speakers received the lion’s share of the work. The songs presented fairly solid stereo separation and created an effective auditory environment, but they didn’t get a lot of help. Dialogue was firmly anchored to the center, and while some effects cropped up on the sides, the impression didn’t seem terribly lively.

Surround usage also was largely restricted to music; the rears offered good reinforcement of the tunes throughout the film. A modest amount of effect activity also emanated from the surrounds, but not much; it’s a pretty restricted track, though it works acceptably well for the material.

Audio quality sounded somewhat inconsistent but was fairly solid. Dialogue appeared slightly thin and rough at times, but for the most part the speech seemed distinct and acceptably natural. I noticed no signs of edginess or any problems related to intelligibility. Effects were fairly flat at times; gunshots particularly appeared small and without much impact. However, most of these components were adequately reproduced, and I detected no concerns related to distortion. Easily the best part of the track related to the music. The songs sounded clear and bright, and they frequently presented some wonderful bass; Juice offered surprisingly tight and deep low end throughout the film. Without the high-quality music, the soundtrack would probably have entered “C” territory, but as it stands, Juice earns a solid “B”.

Much less satisfying are the supplements found on this DVD. There aren’t any, not even the film’s theatrical trailer. This seems particularly unfortunate because I really would have liked to hear director Dickerson’s reflections on his initial attempt as a director and also his comments on Tupac.

With some solid extras, Juice might have been a worthwhile package. The movie itself is a bit of a dud, but Tupac Shakur’s confident and creepy performance almost saves the day. The DVD provides fairly mediocre picture and sound plus absolutely no supplements. Juice arrives with a list price of $29.99, and frankly, that seems way too expensive for such a lackluster release. Fans of the genre or the participants may want to rent Juice, but that’s the most I can recommend.

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