Releasing Studio: New Line Cinema
MPAA Rating: R
Video Codec: VC-1
Disc/Transfer Information: 1080p High Definition; Original Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1, Blu-ray Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1; Region 1 (U.S.) Release
Tested Audio Track: English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (tested in 5.1 configuration)
Director: Albert & Allen Hughes
Starring Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Larenz Tate, Jada Pinkett, Bill Duke, Charles S. Dutton
THIS IS THE TRUTH. THIS IS WHAT'S REAL.
I’m really behind the times on this one. As one of my favorite “inner city” potboiler films – right up there with Boyz N The Hood, Juice, Poetic Justice et. al. – the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society was apparently released to Blu-ray sometime around September of ’09, in this “Extended Director’s Cut” variant, to be precise. The problem is, I had essentially given up on looking into and buying back-catalog titles to replace on Blu-ray (from my DVD versions) being that I had been burned in the past, picture-quality wise (Independence Day comes to mind here). Don’t get me wrong – with some particular titles, I have been pleasantly surprised in terms of the difference in presentation between the Blu-ray and their DVD counterparts, among which Armageddon, Con Air and some others immediately spring to mind; yet, for the most part, I had made a little silent pact with myself that I would begin cherry-picking back-catalog titles that I really wanted to own in the high definition format, or those I was desperately curious to see in a 1080p encode and whether or not they looked different from my DVD copy.
I simply could not believe it, but New Line’s Menace II Society Blu-ray falls into the camp of those titles that absolutely stun me in terms of picture quality differences. I did not think this was going to be the case, coming across the title during some shopping with the wife yesterday at a local general goods store and immediately thinking it was worth a double dip try at only 8 bucks for the disc; as I stated, because I have not been interested or up on the back-catalog titles from all the studios, I wasn’t even aware that New Line and Warner had released this in high definition. But my motivation for seeking a better-looking version of this title was warranted and often-thought about; the original non-anamorphic DVD of Menace is one of the most atrocious, difficult-to-look-at transfers in the history of the format. I should know, I own it. It’s riddled with compression artifacts, noise, exaggerated film grain…in fact, cable TV transmissions of this film on stations like BET looked better than the DVD ever did. Can you imagine? Sad, but the truth.
Every time I took this disc off the shelf to watch it, I would mention to my wife how New Line needed to really go back and remaster this little entertaining ghetto flick, ripe with dialogue that throws out the “F” and “N” bombs like they’re going out of style – yesterday, I was ecstatic to come across Menace on Blu, but I will admit that at first I was very skeptical of what was going to be displayed in my HT because the packaging contained no special slipcase (sometimes the very first sign of a back-catalog title being “cheaply” released without special treatment) nor did the back of the case proclaim any kind of remastering of the audio or video elements were prepared for this “Director’s Cut.” What I was expecting, quite frankly, before viewing it was kind of what happened with the aforementioned Independence Day – that is, the same crummy DVD master was simply going to be ported over to the 1080p encode for the Blu, encapsulating the existing noise, grain and artifact damage of the DVD. Boy, was I in for a shock – I’ll get to that in the technical specs area.
I always felt Menace II Society was a terribly underrated piece of motion picture work. The Hughes brothers, who were getting into shooting music videos for such stars as Tupac Shakur at the time, were interested in shooting a full length motion picture about the rigors and tribulations endured when growing up in the Watts and Compton areas of Los Angeles, California – but where John Singleton’s legendary Boyz N The Hood had explored this already, quite successfully, the Hughes’ were more interested in using that as a template to show a different kind of angle, one that wouldn’t end up with one of these main characters “making it out” of the ‘hood or the violent situations he has encountered nearly all his young, blunt-filled life. Admittingly, the Hughes credit films like Scarface, GoodFellas and the aforementioned Boyz N The Hood as their jumping-off motivation examples before sitting down to do Menace, and once a script was in place, the task of casting these inner-city L.A. thugs was placed upon certain New Line casting gurus. Outside of Samuel L. Jackson – who plays the main character’s drugged-out father in a brief opening sequence – Charles S. Dutton and Bill Duke, most of the characters portrayed in the film were done so by up-and-coming peeps or pretty much nobodies up until that point; Larenz Tate – who portrays the bad-boy “O-Dog” in the film – was discovered irrespective of his self-admitted “Disney-like youth looks” while the primary character, Caine, is played by Tyrin Turner who was really an out-of-the-blue pick for the role. Iregardless, the casting was spot-on in the end, with a lightning-quick ghetto dialogue incredibly effective for this genre, menacing (no pun intended) crime sequences and a wildly appropriate soundtrack. Menace II Society is often the stepchild in the same room as Boyz N The Hood, but they’re both powerfully effective examples of showing what exactly went on in that section of the Western U.S. amongst the African-American youth and gang life – and still does to a great extent – and which would later be brought to the widespread public awareness through the 1992 riots in the area (a la all the Rodney King nonsense and such).
To the backdrop of butt-kickin’ tracks like NWA’s “Dopeman” (from their seminal classic Straight Outta Compton) and on-location shots of burned-out inner-city drug dens and alleyways, Menace tells the story of young friends “Caine” (Turner) and “Kevin ‘O-Dog’” (Tate), living in South Central L.A. and getting ready to involve themselves in some crazy shiznit – not to put it lightly – this summer that’s just begun. In a powerfully effective opening sequence that depicts Turner and Tate’s voices angrily talking over the main New Line intro logo, the first scene opens up to show the boys walking into a Korean liquor store where due to hot heads and insatiable egos, the pre-title sequence ends with the horrendous shooting deaths of the store owner and his wife at the hands of the volatile and downright crazy O-Dog (Tate). A flashback sequence narrated by Turner explains how his father (Samuel L. Jackson) made a full time job out of shooting heroin and selling all kinds of drugs, eventually leading Caine to the lifestyle he eventually indulges in as a high school graduate in South Central L.A. The 1970’s flashback sequence is way entertaining, as Jackson has good time with his portrayal of the loose cannon druggie who not only gets Caine’s own mother high as a kite to the point she overdoses but who shoots point-blank-dead a wise-crackin’ friend who owes him money. It’s one of the more memorable and talked-about moments in the film by fans. From there, we follow Caine and his downward spiral of a journey from high school graduation (something I didn’t even think existed in South Central L.A.) to criminal thug that wears Guess jeans and designer clothes. Through the violence-soaked summer, O-Dog gets Caine involved in crime after crime, one involving the revenge shooting for Caine’s cousin the night of a graduation party in the ‘hood; apparently, after a nasty car-jacking when these Easy E-looking thugs roll up on Caine and Harold (his cousin) in Harold’s BMW and the thugs blast both of them, instantly killing Harold but sparing Caine, O-Dog gets word of where these “fools be kickin’ it at” and they find them at a chicken shack trying to hit on some ghetto-looking hoochie behind the security bars. If this sounds very similar to the revenge killing towards the end of Boyz N The Hood in which Ice Cube’s character seeks the death of those responsible for his brother’s shooting and finds the perps hanging out at a burger place, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that – it’s clear the Hughes used that scene for inspiration here.
As we meet more of O-Dog and Caine’s friends involved in all this criminal mischief – including characters “A-Wax,” “Chauncey,” “Stacy” and “Lu-Lo” (portrayed by rapper Too Short) – the film gets funnier and funnier in terms of dialogue and how these downright thugs talk to one another. We meet some of these characters early on during the graduation party sequence, in which Caine confronts O-Dog about his showing off the security video tape of his shooting the liquor store clerk around town; we also meet “Sharif,” a member of this group of friends but a kind of an outcast in that he has turned to becoming a Muslim and constantly tries to get the rest of these fools to do the same. Sharif’s father is portrayed by Charles S. Dutton, who routinely warns his son of the “white devils” when he suspects him of fooling around with white girls and the like, while trying to get Caine on a straight path away from the crime his friends are involved in. Truth be told, that was always an element of Menace that irked me – Tyrin Turner’s “Caine” character always seemed out of place amongst these gangster types. No doubt, the characters of O-Dog, Chauncey, Wax and Lu-Lo are definitely hardcore Compton thugs who have put their criminal “work” in on the streets. Caine, on the other hand, seems to be a white suburban kid who is simply trapped inside a black kid’s body, what with his Guess clothes and his jewelry and his fresh-cut fade hairstyle; that never added up to me. It seems Caine is completely out of place with this crowd, no matter how hard he attempts to make himself via whuppings on the streets and threats of violence. Yet, we follow Caine through all the madness of this particular summer – from the role he plays in killing his cousin’s shooters to robbing a fellow Mustang owner at a fast food drive through for his rims, stereo and jewelry to getting a tight-bicycle-shorts-wearing girl he meets before he goes to a picnic pregnant and blowing her off to the eventual confrontation with the girl’s cousin who seeks revenge for knocking her up. It is, ironically, after a serious beatdown the girl’s cousin endures at the hands of Caine outside his grandparents’ apartment, the revenge plot the cousin puts together with some Blood-and-Crip types that ends up being Caine’s final undoing amidst all this violence and tragedy. It should be noted that Caine, as narrated by Turner in the beginning of the film, went to live with his grandparents in the Jordan Downs section of L.A. after his father (Jackson) was killed in a drug deal that went bad and his mother died of a heroin overdose. And, also of note is the fact that the cousin of the girl Caine knocks up (“Ailenna”) is played by one of the guys from the rap group “Naughty by Nature;” not Treach but “Vin.”
In between, we also meet a love interest of just about everyone in this ‘hood, “Ronnie” (played by a braided Jada Pinkett) who was the girl of an old homie in the neighborhood and who is now in jail (played by Glenn Plummer); Plummer’s character helped raise Caine and introduced him to the street lifestyle, but now Ronnie has a clear romantic interest in him and is trying to teach him the lessons of staying alive long enough to enjoy a post-high school graduation. In a sequence involving Ronnie and Caine going to visit Plummer’s character in prison, Caine’s mentor tells him to go with Ronnie and take care of his son for him – eventually, Ronnie gets a job in Atlanta and views it as a way to get out of the violent neighborhoods of L.A. and begs Caine to come with her. Through effective narration by Turner, his character contemplates the benefits of staying in L.A. with his so-called friends who are going nowhere but maybe to jail against those of leaving and starting a new life with Ronnie. He decides to leave everything behind and go with her, but that proves to be a fatal, unfortunate decision as evidenced when Ailenna’s cousin arrives with his gun-wielding carload of hoods at Ronnie’s house where the gang is helping her pack up and load her van for her cross-country move. Indeed, in this sense, Menace is different from Boyz in that the end sequence doesn’t depict one of the main characters “escaping” from the disasters and pain of their environment – wherein Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character in Boyz made it out of the ‘hood alive and in one piece, being able to go on to college with his sweetheart, there’s no such luck for Menace’s Caine.
There’s also a brief but solid performance by the great Bill Duke (Predator, Commando) who portrays an LAPD detective that interrogates Caine for the liquor store robbery and murders, in which Caine and Dog’s fingerprints were found at the scene on 40 ounce bottles of Old English; Duke is hysterical as the trash-talking but cool-and-collected cop that brilliantly tries in every which way to get Turner’s character to trip up and confess to the shootings (”Now listen you little b****…I’m going to ask some very simple questions and I want some very simple answers…you got that?") Classic.
As for the “Director’s Cut” moniker attached to the Blu-ray release of Menace, this pretty much boiled down to very, very brief and quick sequences tacked onto certain scenes in the film, such as an extended beat-down part when “Wax” tries to coax more money out of the basehead druggie that hangs out with them and some other somewhat forgettable moments. To me, it didn’t warrant adding the “Director’s Cut” name to the title, the added scenes instead being better put to use via a special feature for “deleted scenes” or some such nomenclature. These so-called “Extended” and “Director’s” cuts of DVD and BD releases were always hit or miss in my opinion; take, for example, Disney/Buena Vista’s “Extended Cut” of Crimson Tide, which added silly, unimportant moments back into the film that were supposedly cut by Tony Scott, but did we really need a ridiculous conversation between Denzel Washington and the submarine’s chief of the boat while Washington’s character shaves in his cabin? On the other hand, films like Any Given Sunday and their Director’s Cuts sometimes bring some welcomed punch and sizzle to a story – in Oliver Stone’s case with Sunday, we get added visual shocks such as when that Dallas football player loses his actual eye on the field and the "romantic shennanegans" that take place in the bathroom between LL Cool J, Bill Bellamy and the blondes on their knees in the stalls with them during the fundraiser ball sequence – now that’s what I call “added substance.”
VIDEO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
Let’s go beyond the plot analysis of Menace II Society for a moment – I don’t know what else to say but “wow” in terms of New Line’s Blu-ray presentation of this title. As I said, I was expecting a visual mess from this disc, given its low shelf price and lack of intriguing physical packaging…perhaps a porting over of the non-anamorphic DVD’s horrendous master – but I was dead wrong. From the very beginning when Turner and Tate walk into the L.A. liquor store, the 1.85:1 transfer looked stunningly clean in 1080p. Gone was the twitchy noise and artifacting around objects, and instead a crisp, stable and downright gorgeous picture filled my screen without letterboxing. Everything looked great and just clean – as the film went on, the visual candy just got better and better, making me say out loud “now this is what a high def catalog title should look like!”
Even the flashback sequence involving Samuel L. Jackson and his drug den – a scene I was prepared to be nauseated by because of the way it’s so terribly rendered on the DVD with its bleeding colors and pixilated images – looked remarkably fresh and new as if just-minted; the scene is bathed in a heavy red hue to suggest the ‘70s flashback characteristics and the apartment Jackson’s party is taking place in is ridiculously dark with merely a strobe light to set it off, but regardless of these hurdles for an encode, the scene came off looking terrific…light years better than the DVD, as if this was a brand-new film. Just about every frame from start to finish looked great – the graduation party (which always looked murky on the DVD to me), the high-contrast scene involving the group of friends when they bring Caine to the hospital and he’s bleeding to death after the carjacking, the rich and colorful picnic scene when Caine first meets Ailenna and even the darker sequences…this was a massive, night-and-day difference over New Line’s non-anamorphic DVD release of Menace (and you know I don’t say that without conviction or evidence).
Definitely an improvement in the video department – and definitely worth an upgrade over the DVD if for the video improvement alone.
AUDIO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
New Line’s DVD release of Menace was equipped with a usable and aggressive-enough Dolby Digital 5.1 track, so I wasn’t really expecting much in this department – but again, I was hit over the head with a massive improvement in both sonics and clarity. New Line offers a choice of surround tracks in 7.1 Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital EX, but the film defaults to the TrueHD track without the option of picking from a pre-launched menu first. That was okay with me, as I was going to choose the TrueHD track anyway. From the opening shots which depict Turner and Tate’s characters entering the liquor store talking smack, I got the feeling the TrueHD mix – reduced in my system to a 5.1 arrangement – wasn’t going to offer much sonic benefit over the DVD’s Dolby Digital audio. But once the music kicked on and the soundtrack heated up, it was clear the TrueHD was the far superior version for this film.
Everything about the mix was improved over the DVD – immediately evidenced by the part in which flashback sequences to the Watts riots of the ‘60s are depicted during the opening credits. Compared to the TrueHD track, the DVD’s Dolby Digital mix was sloppy and boomy in this scene, whereas in high resolution, the bellowing whips around the room rampaged cleanly from channel to channel, the heartbeat-like pumping powerfully rendered in the front two channels. From there, the audio only got better, much like the video experience; the scene in which Caine is preparing to make the drugs in Lu-Lo’s apartment and we get close-ups of the pot of water on a stove and such is accompanied by NWA’s awesome “Dopeman” (from their aforementioned classic Straight Outta Compton album), and I have to admit that I’ve never heard the song so cleanly rendered in the film as in TrueHD. The DVD’s Dolby Digital transmits the track heavy and punchy enough, for sure, but in TrueHD on the Blu-ray the song was so much cleaner and tactile in delivery, making the scene even more goose bump-inducing. Gunshots, spatial cues, panning…everything about the DVD’s audio mix was turned up to 11 here and was greatly improved. The film most definitely has a lack of surround presence, but this was an engineering decision and this is carried over nicely as well – even the final shootout sequence between O-Dog and Ailenna’s cousin and his gang had a powerful, chill-inducing characteristic to it and included that final effective “echo ringing” of the last gun blast into the surrounds in a very subtle way.
Very nice work here, as well.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATIONS:
This is a no-brainer if you’re a fan. A massive step up from the DVD version (the non-anamorphic variant anyway), New Line really did a great job with this catalog title, and it should be the standard by which other back-catalog titles are measured in my opinion. A monumental film for this genre, I can wholeheartedly recommend Menace II Society - Director’s Cut on Blu-ray as a must-own title.
One thing I'll comment on that I didn't care for was the packaging for this release/edition -- New Line could have definitely chosen better cover art or included a nice slipcase with raised-relief lettering on it for the Director's Cut; as it stands, the cover art is a bit confusing (it was for me when I first picked the disc up in the store and held it) depicting "Stacey" in the end sequence of the film holding Caine's lifeless body after it's been riddled with machine gun bullet holes, and Caine and O-Dog in a small depiction towards the bottom left of the cover. At first glance, I wasn't sure what the main image was of -- it took me awhile to figure out it was Stacey holding Caine. Bad move by New Line on this one; Menace deserved better packaging and artwork.