The new film "Juice," which is street slang for "respect," is very slow to start. Worse, the meandering style and heavy-on-the-rap soundtrack (not to mention the constant stream of profanity) are more annoying than ingratiating, as characters are introduced and the story's central conflict is set up.
And before long it becomes apparent that the plot is really little more than a variation on the oldest film noir crime cliche in the book a robbery is planned by a gang of thieves, it goes awry and someone is killed, and instead of pulling together, the gang finds itself coming apart.
Yet, as we approach the robbery, the film becomes more compelling. We come to feel for the individuals and their plight, and the final half-hour is quite gripping.
In this case, the gang isn't really a gang, but four friends a "crew" who have grown up on the streets of Harlem, where they spend considerably more time than they do in school. (There's a comic moment late in the film where central character Q, played by Omar Epps, returns to school but can't get into his locker; he's forgotten the combination.)
Most of the time they skip school, play video games at the local pool hall, buy cigarettes from a machine in a local bar, run from police, try to avoid a Puerto Rican gang and generally get in and out of mischief.
Q is the main sympathetic character. Aspiring to become a "DJ," Q enters a local contest and quickly rises to the top of the heap. But he's pressured by his friends, Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Raheem (Khalil Kain) and Steele (Jermaine Hopkins), to spend less time working on his craft and more time with them.
With violence and crime all around them, it's a given that eventually the foursome will try to make an easy score, and once they do, their insulated world begins to crumble.
Though the film's first third or so is frustrating, first-time director and co-writer Ernest R. Dickerson, who is a respected cinematographer, manages to kick in the necessary emotional pull and visceral thrills in time to save the film. And, to his credit, despite the script's reliance on familiar cliches, the film never feels like an exploitation thriller, as we genuinely feel for these kids and the life they've fallen into.
Epps is effective, but Shakur is a showstopper, especially during a funeral scene and as he and Epps have potentially explosive encounters in the film's latter half.
"Juice" is rated R for violence, profanity, vulgarity, marijuana smoking and some sex.