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By Brad Laidman | September 26, 2001

Sam Jackson seems to be more than willing to show up for any movie where there is a crew of at least three people, but he seemed to make a special effort to let people know how cool he thought Fresh was. Fresh is a tale of innocence lost and revenge gained, with an unreal performance by Sean Nelson as a 12 year-old drug courier who may be the most intensely motivated and brilliant character since perhaps the comic book version of Lex Luthor. Fresh vs Paul Newman’s Henry Gondorf from the Sting would make a cool sequel if they didn’t take place sixty years apart. It all makes for a neat final act of the ’90s great young man in the ghetto trilogy with Boyz ‘N’ The Hood and Menace II Society. Fresh makes Spike Lee’s Clockers look silly by comparison. Although special mention should be made to Lee’s former cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s Juice which started the genre off with a bang and introduced Tupac Shakur to the world.
Fresh has an amazingly vital jazz flow of poetically harsh street language. It’s more of a thriller than a heartfelt rendering of life in the streets, but it still makes you want to cry at the impossibility and the strain of ghetto life even for someone who makes a herculean effort like Nelson does. Boaz Yakin nails the feel and glide of the street and he manages to do it without even using hip hop. The soundtrack here is from ex-Police drummer Stuart Copeland.
Fresh is a drug runner. He dreams about the million dollars they laughed over in Austin Powers. In the morning he runs smack for Giancarlo Esposito’s Esteban and in the afternoon he peddles crack for Ron Brice’s Corky. Both dealers tell him daily how if he wasn’t so young he’d probably be the man. If everybody along the line didn’t try to cheat him he would make it to school on time every once in a while. The opening scene is chilling. Fresh goes to an older Latino woman’s house she looks like a grandma, offers him milk and cookies, tries to cheat him out of a brick of smack, and has heroin tracks on her arm. Everyone he deals with has a volatile dangerous temper where someone could die at even the slightest tremor. His friends are playing kid games, flipping baseball cards, playing basketball, while he rules the streets and plays blitz chess first with his dad and then with the world. He lives with his hard working straight aunt and twelve other cousins who barely treat him like a real person.
Samuel L. Jackson is his father, an alcoholic chess hustler miles closer to what I’ve seen wallowing in the park than the angelically soulful inspiration played by Larry Fishburne in Searching For Bobby Fischer. He somehow has lost custody of his son, but he dotes on the kid when they meet up in the park. Jackson taunts his kid about playing with losers for a few bucks, and talks smack about how to play emotionless and go for the jugular. Jackson seems oblivious to the realities of his world other than the fact that he doesn’t want to play for the school chess team. Of course. No one cool plays for the school team. It’s like the Hustler. If your with it, you never play for real unless it’s for big money or sheer intimidation. Jackson keeps telling his son to grow up not even noticing the kid is practically forty already.
Fresh’s sister is a heroin addict whom Esteban is obsessed with having, and about a month away from falling off the face of the earth. One of Fresh’s pals is an amazingly gifted hoops demon. One day he makes the mistake of excessively showing up a kid about six years older and twice his size. When the shooting is done with the pal is dead and so is accidentally the girlfriend he was about thirty seconds away from having. Fresh always watching always thinking doesn’t cry for a moment. He comes up with this amazingly complex plan to set both drug dealers and the police up against each other so he can take his sister away without any street interference. He gets away with it because his track record is so honest and his story is so good they want to believe his intricate exploding web of skillful deceit. The kid sacrifices his moron pseudo street smart running mouth friend like a second hand pawn, and menacingly eats a candy bar while he watches the killings go down like chilling dominos. Only at the very end when his macabre plot is finished does he let out, cry and act his age. The whole thing is so methodologically brilliant that that final cry comes out like a tempest wail and a well earned one at that. Although I’ve seen it twice and I still can’t for the life of me figure out why he had to kill that dog.

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