The American Dream: Earn it. Buy it. Kill for it.
Blue Hill Avenue begins with three stylishly dressed black men striding into a warehouse, where they confront a gang of Cubans. Out comes the inevitable suitcase full of cash from one side of the table; from the other, a suitcase full of coke. It's the classic, tense standoff you've seen in a dozen crime flicks, and it ends, as such standoffs must, with fireworks.
The film pauses at that dramatic moment to flash back to 1979, to the inner-city Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, where we meet these three men—plus one character who wasn't seen in the present-day prologue (which, along with several other portentous moments, doesn't foreshadow so much as announce one of the film's tragic turns)—as teenaged boys. There's Tristan, the levelheaded leader; "Money," the smooth operator; "E-Bone," a hot-blooded Joe Pesci type; and big, loyal Simon, the team's muscle. We follow the boys as they tumble into lives of crime, rising predictably up the underworld ladder under the wary eye of gang lord Benny (The Mod Squad's Clarence Williams III). Meanwhile, the recurring hip-hop soundtrack dispenses exposition and street wisdom in equal measure.
Hearkening back to '70s blaxploitation flicks as well as drawing generously from the Scorsese well (Mean Streets and GoodFellas are obvious inspirations), Blue Hill Avenue is a direct-to-DVD crime flick that writer-director Craig Ross, Jr. suggests is autobiographical—Ross grew up in the neighborhood the film is set in—but seems to be drawn less from Ross's childhood memories than his memories of gangster movies. There isn't a moment, from Tristan and his gang's rise to power to their inevitable strife and breakdown, that doesn't remind you of some other movie. Just about every cliché you'd expect, from Clarence Williams' dead-eyed, growling Marcellus Wallace-like crime lord to the requisite pair of corrupt white cops, makes an appearance here. When gravel-voiced William Forsythe (Once Upon a Time in America) shows up, you almost wonder if the director is parodying the crime epic rather than emulating it. But of course, the film is far too dour and stone-faced for that—Ross captures the allure of the criminal life, a la GoodFellas, but misses that film's awareness of the characters' fundamental absurdity.
But while it would be easy to dismiss this B-movie as Fat Albert meets GoodFellas, or maybe Once Upon a Time in America meets Superfly—take your pick—Blue Hill Avenue manages to weave those familiar elements into a surprisingly entertaining urban crime melodrama. Allen Payne (Jason's Lyric), as the adult Tristan, brings more depth and power to his role than the film warrants—Payne is far too gifted an actor to be slumming in generic gangsta roles like this—and the supporting cast features some memorable, appealing actors. The story, obvious as it is, nevertheless offers a slew of diverting twists and turns, and kept my interest all the way up to the ludicrous ending (there's a last-minute "twist" that is so contrived as to completely shatter any suspension of disbelief). Blue Hill Avenue would have improved greatly by ending about five minutes sooner.
Ross is undoubtedly a talented director with a decent feel for action, and he does well with what looks to have been a low budget, but as a storyteller he lacks originality, and as a visual stylist he's competent but not especially creative; instead of sidestepping the clichés of the genre or juicing them up, the way his cinematic idols might, Ross steps squarely into each one of them.
Looking at the features on this DVD presentation, I had to glance twice at the cover to confirm what I was seeing: this is an Artisan catalog release? Dolby 5.1 Surround, deleted scenes, audio commentary…surely this can't be an Artisan DVD. Artisan catalog releases aren't supposed to have extra features—it's a good day when they even offer scene selections. This must be a New Line or Warner disc. Oh, wait: full frame version only. Never mind. Still, by Artisan standards this is a remarkable effort. There's an amusing audio commentary by Ross and William L. Johnson ("E-Bone") and Aaron D. Spears ("Money")—Ross and company are chatty and full of interesting anecdotes, and their affection for this film and each other is obvious. Also offered is a handful of brief deleted scenes and a couple of featurettes (a "Behind the Scenes" bit and some cast/crew interviews) that are a little on the light side, but that should please fans of the film.
This being Artisan, however, there can be no pleasure without a dose of pain. The full frame transfer hacks up cinematographer Carl Bartels' excellent compositions into a claustrophobic, stifling box, and image quality is acceptable but undercut by excessive grain and one jarring flaw that should have been caught early on in the authoring process. The disc features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that's lively and muscular and presents the hip-hop and gunshot-heavy sound well, but it's hampered by persistent background noise. Kudos to Artisan for paying more attention to this DVD than they usually do for non-A-list titles, but this presentation still leaves much to be desired.
If you're a fan of blaxploitation cinema and can't get enough of organized crime flicks, Blue Hill Avenue should satisfy; while it's painfully derivative and rarely rises above the look and feel of a TV movie, it's competently executed and better than one would expect from a direct-to-video release.
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