It’s been a long time coming but Juice finally arrives on DVD for the very first time, and despite being made almost 20 years ago it’s incredible how well the film holds up.
It would be easy to write Juice off as just another entry in the 90s urban crime/black cinema genre and the story, about the breakdown of the friendship between four Harlem boys (played by Omar Epps, real-life rapper Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins and Khalil Kain) after crime enters their lives, is not a particularly original one. But unlike its predecessors, such as Boyz N the Hood (1991) and Straight out of Brooklyn (1991), it takes a different approach. While these films focus on (and usually glamorise) gang life, Juice is much more of a morality play, pulling no punches in its portrayal of what happens to ostensibly good people when a life of crime beckons.
Violence seems endemic in the ghetto, but while Tupac Shakur’s bullied Bishop is drawn to the thug life, particularly after he gets hold of a handgun, the lead protagonist Q, played by a teenage Omar Epps, searches for a life beyond that, forming a relationship with a mature girlfriend and seeking to fulfil his dream of becoming a DJ. Both are looking to gain respect, or ‘juice’, as they mature into manhood, but with their lives drifting in different directions and loyalties put under pressure, a final reckoning becomes inevitable, giving the film’s third act an air of nervy tension.
Beyond its strong and highly quotable script (‘Riverside, motherfucker!’), the film offers plenty more to enjoy, not least the fantastic performances of its young cast, Epps and Shakur in particular. Co-writer-director Ernest R. Dickinson, who, before making his directorial debut with this film, cut his teeth as Spike Lee’s cinematographer on Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991) and Malcolm X (1992), also shows a clear understanding of the material and handles the portrayal of the four friends with both skill and style. The music too is sensational (although perhaps only if you like hip-hop), and the eagle-eyed will spot some notable faces from the world of rap, not just Tupac and Queen Latifah (who cameos as the organiser of a local DJ competition).
The only disappointment with this DVD release is the lack of any extra features - a real shame as the film is crying out for the special edition treatment. However, the fact that it has been released on DVD at all (finally, we can replace those well-worn VHS copies) is something worth celebrating. So isn’t it about time you got the Juice?