Perhaps it's only an illusion brought on by overfrequent moviegoing, but it sometimes seems as if good movies tend to arrive in swarms. One slogs through months of scrounging what merit one can find out of dull movies, and then suddenly there come, all within a few weeks' time, Quiz Show and Spanking the Monkey and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and reissues of The Conformist and Woodstock, and Red Rock West.
So writer/director Boaz Yakin's Fresh will probably not get the attention it unquestionably deserves. This inner-city thriller, about the retribution which a black child (Sean Nelson) brings upon the drug dealers polluting his neighborhood, is not just another skippable Boyz N the Hood knockoff. Fresh, both in conception and execution, lives up to its name--it's a true original. The title is the nickname of Nelson's character, a preteen gofer for two neighborhood drug dealers--this is possible because his two employers don't compete (one sells base, the other smack). Fresh is a cool customer, a prudent, observant kid who takes no crap, but has no interest in acting like a badass. The adult gangstas chuckle at him, impressed and a little unnerved. When Fresh witnesses an appalling act of violence by an unstable gunman (Jean LaMarre) in the employ of one of his bosses (Ron Brice), something in him quietly changes. He applies the lessons in chess strategy, which his broken-down father (Samuel L. Jackson) has taught him, to set in motion an elaborate (yet plausible) plot by which the neighborhood gangsters are set murderously against each other, la that greatest of hard-boiled novels, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. Fresh is not without a few faults. As Fresh, young Nelson is superb--he connects with the audience with almost uncanny forcefulness--but the kids that play Fresh's friends are stiff, and their diction is often indecipherable. Giancarlo Esposito (usually a fine actor) is a little hammy as one of the dealers. Also, this is not a picture for the squeamish; the violence, even though much of it takes place discreetly out of frame, is truly shocking. But Fresh is fascinating, from its startling opening, in which a ghetto seems to grow out of a barren wasteland, to its final moments, which are humane without going soft. The soulfulness of the resolution is necessary, even in practical dramatic terms, since Fresh's scheme is less about vengeance than about purgation. If the hero of Fresh didn't have a heart, the film's plot would make no sense.