Juice, the title of Ernest R. Dickerson's riveting, up-to-the-minute street drama, refers to the pumped-up macho bravado the sensation of having complete control over your surroundings, of ruling that has come to define style and morality in the inner city. The desire for this sort of strutting domination is, of course, a legacy of people who have no true power over their own lives. Juice, which is set in Harlem, is a kind of black B-movie Mean Streets about four youths coming of age in a war zone. The film is an inflammatory morality play shot through with rage and despair. Like Boyz N the Hood and Straight Out of Brooklyn, it asks: When every aspect of your environment is defined by violence, is it possible to avoid getting sucked into the maelstrom?
Dickerson is making his directorial debut after serving as cinematographer on all of Spike Lee's features and on the Eddie Murphy concert film Raw. Already it's clear, though, that he's a born filmmaker. He captures the jittery, combative rhythm of a way of life. His movie lays bare how, in an era when America's inner cities have crumbled into physical and spiritual rubble, the consuming desire for dominion has begun to seep into every corner of people's lives.
In Juice, the lust for power is there, most obviously, in the obsession with guns: By owning them (and using them), a teenager can feel that he's a man, that he has some hard-core say in his own destiny. The power lust is there as well in the haunted, apocalyptic sound of gangsta rappers indeed, in the very aesthetic of ''scratch'' DJs, who by sampling other people's songs and manipulating the movement of the tonearm declare their personal mastery over the pulse of pop culture itself. Most profoundly, the juice is there in the aggressive heat of everyday interaction in the embattled boasting, the cultish, obsessive slang (the language is so relentless it militates against people having their own personalities), the thrusting conversational violence that says, ''Here are the rules, period. Play by them or you won't survive.''
Juice has a conventional melodramatic script, but Dickerson finds authenticity in the spontaneous rhythms of his actors. Q (Omar Epps), the pretty-boy DJ hero, and his crew spend their days cruising the 'hood, hanging out at the video arcade, and getting into just enough trouble to keep life interesting. Officially, the four are in high school, but school doesn't exist for them; with rare exceptions, they don't bother to show up. Petty crime like ripping off a record store is their sport, their lifeblood, their baby-macho ritual.
Q's buddies include Raheem (Khalil Kain), who is already a father (and a delinquent one); Steel (Jermaine Hopkins), the group's fat-kid mascot, who wields his boom box like a high-decibel security blanket; and Bishop (Tupac Shakur), whose sensitive/reptilian stare conceals a reckless, perhaps unstable, temperament. Fired by a news report of an acquaintance's death the friend, no innocent bystander, had been holding up a bar Bishop figures that the time is right to fight the power by ripping off a local convenience store.
He insists on staging the crime on a Saturday night, even though Q is scheduled to spend that evening testing his record-spinning prowess at the local Mixxmaster Massacre. Between sets, Q slips out of the DJ contest and joins the holdup. Dickerson stages a shocking moment: In the midst of the crime, Bishop commits a random act of violence but he does it casually, on a whim, not because there's any threat but simply because he feels like doing it. His action isn't remotely ''motivated,'' and that's its true horror.
Bishop may be psychotic, but, as with Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (the clear spiritual model for this character), his craziness emerges from the world around him. Murder, he discovers, makes him high, and once he's tasted that much juice, he can't come down from it. He has to go on killing. Tupac, a member of the demonically satirical rap troupe Digital Underground, gives a startling performance, especially in the scene where Bishop explains, calmly, that he doesn't care about anyone, including himself. As scripted, this declaration of terminal nihilism may be overexplicit (like Boyz N the Hood, Juice is a bit too aware of its socially conscious roots), yet it's anchored in such a pungent atmosphere of blood and despair that it is still devastating. Coming out from behind Spike Lee's camera, Ernest Dickerson has instantly arrived at the forefront of the new wave of black directors. His film aims for the gut, and hits it. B+