As the strong-arm hustler who darts in and out of Above the Rim, Tupac Shakur proves, once again, that he may be the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn. (The jury is out on whether he’ll prove as self-destructive.) Like Penn, Shakur gives each of his characters a unique spiritual temperature. In Juice, he wore a gloomy, reptilian stare — a look of the damned — as the psychotic homeboy who got hooked on murder. Last year, he was an oasis of decency and yearning amid the self-indulgent noise of John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. Now, he brings barbed comic edges to the role of Birdie, a Harlem operator who carries a razor blade in his mouth and flashes his big, gleaming teeth like a happy wolf. A junior Don King, Birdie presides over the local playground basketball games, which he turns into high-stakes contests. There’s something creepy and smug about this hustler’s leering confidence; he’s too young to have so much bravado. Shakur gives the movie a charge of excitement. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to do but play Mephistopheles to the film’s young hero.
Above the Rim is energetically directed (by Jeff Pollack), but it’s depressing to see how quickly these B-boy melodramas have generated their own preachy cliches. There’s the well-meaning high schooler (Duane Martin) torn between his honest impulses and the lure of the street. There’s the saintly single mom (Tonya Pinkins) desperate for her son to get an education. There’s the older role model, Shep (Leon), a former basketball star-turned-security guard, stoic and brooding with the knowledge of how the ghetto has chewed up the lives of his brothers. It’s a measure of the movie’s downbeat glibness that Shep is haunted by memories of the night his friend went up for a slam dunk, crashed through the backboard, and fell several stories to his death. Now, there’s an inner-city problem to rival violence and dope: basketball hoops perched on dangerous ledges. C