Their rules are written in blood
Brian Lovero is an Italian street thug running drugs and scams to keep him and his widowed ex-cop father alive. He sells marijuana to all the gangs in town: the Hispanics, the Blacks, and even the White Supremacists. On other occasions, he works with strippers at a local club, using a video camera and faux car accidents to blackmail married businessmen out of their money. He even fronts stolen property for his ex-mafia Uncle. One day, he meets Amy at a local hotdog stand and is immediately infatuated. They start to date and at first, everything is fine. But Amy used to be the girlfriend of Cole, the deranged leader of a local Aryan Nation type group. When he sees his white princess going out with a Mediterranean grease ball, he's outraged. He gets his gang together and they beat Brian up. Hoping to find some manner of revenge, he tries to buy a gun but can't. So he turns to his "brothers" in the Black community, hoping they will put an end to Cole and his obsessive, brutal ways. But these "gangstas" don't do anything without payback, and the deal they have for Brian is a risky one indeed. They will get rid of Cole and his buddies if Brian deals with a crooked, racist cop who killed the gang leader's brother. Thus the pact is set and Brian must face the truth about himself and his life. Is he a hustler simply trying to make a buck? Or is he a homicidal Menace to society?
Menace, which used to be called White Boy before Artisan got ahold of it, is one grand collection of controversial subject matters disguised as an urban gang film. Stuffed within its overripe script and borderline melodrama plotline are the following hot-button issues: rape, murder, police brutality, racial profiling, governmental corruption, drug dealing, pot smoking, white on black prejudice, Latino on Latino bigotry, black on black violence, white on black violence, abortion, underage sex, drive-by shootings, alcoholism, the mafia, contractual hits, the physical and mental abuse of women, theft, fraud, insurance scams, adultery, prostitution, gun rights, standard waiting periods to buy weaponry, "wiggers," white power, the Aryan nation, and unemployment. About the only Sally Jesse-esque issue avoided in this mish mash of the moribund is suicide, and that's only because director John Marino left his main character's father's self-inflicted finale on the cutting room floor. Guess he figured he'd leave that, along with bestiality, harassment of the handicapped, and the raising of the dead for the sequel. With so many contentious issues throw up and at the screen during the course of 93 minutes, you'd think Menace would be rife with taut, intense scenes of personal and social terror wrapped within a standard story of street ethics and revenge. Well, you'd be wrong because, for all its divisiveness, Menace is about as portentous as a sociologist. The overabundance of discordance is only used to paint a script that is rather dull and lifeless with some manner of communal importance. It wants to address race and culture in a confrontational fashion. But between the bouts of bad pre-teen poetry, self-absorbed journal logs, and confusing rap tracks, Menace can't figure out what it has to say about anything.
One odd thing you notice about Menace is that its entire storyline is based around the marijuana trade. Now, thirty years ago when the concept of a "gateway" drug was as fresh in the minds of America's Establishment as WIN buttons, using hemp as the background narcotic for a crime thriller would have seemed downright malevolent. But in 2003, the minute our characters start wheeling and dealing the Panama Red, you keep expecting Phish to show up and provide a milieu appropriate jam to shower the scene with sonic sensimilla. Or at least a cameo from Macy Gray. Let's face it, with all the other hideous hard drugs out there that can really melt your vital organs and stupefy your brainpan, making doobage your King Creole is coconuts. Hopefully, Dr. Dre and Snoop got their trademark intact for the number of times the characters cry for "the Chronic" in this tepid tale of incense and peppermints. But then writer/director Marino increases the wretched weirdness and coats the whole mess in the even more chaotic clutter of white supremacy. Now, not only do we have to contend with Italians talking pasta and brothers blowin' blunts, but we get the added pleasure of watching slow motion shots of skinheads falling into their Nazi symbol bed linen. The whole ancillary Aryan angle seems completely superfluous and appears to have been added only as a didactic symbol to the main theme of race mixing and the Caucasian-ization of hip hop culture. True, ever since some white dope stole a Queen riff and sold a million copies of his cracker chattering, the honkey has been hip deep in the African American art form. But Menace doesn't champion black culture so much as supplant it with a new ideal: mulatto multimedia.
Then there are the casting choices made. Here, they render Menace more amusing than electrifying. Jan Michael Vincent may be the poster boy for a career in Hollywood undone by drugs, booze, brawling, accidents, and appearances on Howard Stern's radio show, but to give him a role where he is require to remember and recite lines is a little much. There is one gloriously hilarious (in an unintentional way) sequence where the actor playing a reporter interviewing Vincent literally feeds him his lines during the on-air confrontation. At one time, he was Airwolf, The World's Greatest Athlete. Now, he's one big barely ambulatory bit of gnarled, cauliflowered flesh. On the opposite end of the discomfort level is Alison Lohman, who even though she was 23 at the time the film was made, looks like she just graduated out of her first training bra. Her incredibly barely legal aura really adds an unnecessarily creepy element to Menace. Every time she is onscreen in a love or violence scene, you wonder where her chaperone was during filming. Far too fresh-faced to play someone burdened with a skinhead stalker, an Italian Stallion bed buddy, and a soon to be aborted fetus in her belly, she's disconcerting whenever we see her. It makes no difference that lead actor Johnny Green looks like Harry Connick Jr. and Corey Feldman's illegitimate love child, or that Jonathan Avildsen's white power poseur Cole seems more pumped up on steroids than eugenics, Alison's pre-pubescent presence almost adds another topic to the movie's already overflowing notoriety: kiddie porn. And Menace doesn't need another confrontational calling card. It's already overloaded with about 12 movies' worth of polarizing platitudes.
Artisan, once again, let's its Edict engine roar by giving this plebian potboiler way too many "propers" for digital home release. The anamorphic widescreen image, at 1.85:1, is riddled with grain and compression issues. Almost all the night scenes are marred by massive gray dots. Marino also makes the mistake of mixing film and video during crucial crime scene elements in his film, and the clarity of the camcorder footage underlines the occasionally horrible quality of the motion picture print. As for the sound, we get a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 and/or 2.0 presentation that offers some channel challenges, nice ambient separation, and an overall decent aural atmosphere. And once again, we get more bonus material than a droopy title like this should have. We are treated to a couple of deleted scenes that revolve around the aforementioned suicide of Brian's ex-cop father. Offered here in rough video image edits, the additional material adds nothing of value to the story. We also get a nice, if unnecessary, gallery of shots from the production of the film and some trailers for others, along with an Artisan friendly ad for Menace itself. But by far the only redeeming aspect of this DVD is the audio commentary by writer/director John Marino, filmmaker Abel Ferrara, and executive producer Johnny Ciarcia. After an initial burst of interest from Ferrara and Ciarcia, the dull duo go quiet and Marino takes over, offering wonderful stories about the casting (several famous people have siblings/offspring/relatives in this film) and the "guerilla" aspects to the filmmaking. But he is convinced he has created a work of substantial brilliance here and spends a lot of time patting himself and his actors on the back.
The problem is Menace is not really a movie, radiant or ridiculous. It's more like a collection of those lame ass government pamphlets, complete with non-descript cartoon caricatures, dealing with the polemic issues that stain the social fabric of our society, like smoking and VD. And it's equally adept at getting its point across.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Abel Ferrara, Writer/Director John Marino, and Executive Producer Johnny Ciarcia
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