This rousing basketball drama centers around Tommy "Shep" Sheppard (Leon), a former high school basketball star now haunted by the accidental death of his best friend, and Kyle Watson (Duane Martin), an arrogant high school player in danger of slipping into crime. Though Shep avoids commitment in his life as a security guard, his attraction to Kyle's mother (Tonya Pinkins) draws him out of his protective shell--but Kyle is more interested in mentorship from Shep's gangster brother Birdie (Tupac Shakur). Above the Rim is melodramatic but played with grit and energy by a solid cast, particularly Shakur. Writer-director Jeff Pollack keeps the story moving and gives the characters enough spin to rescue them from being clichés; the result is engaging despite its formulas. Also featuring Bernie Mac and Marlon Wayans. --Bret Fetzer
Tyrin Turner may not have broken out into stardom as was initially expected, but his work in Menace II Society is one of the more powerful cinematic debuts. The film, from the brother writer-director team of Allen and Albert Hughes, chronicles life in the Los Angeles 'hood. Similar territory was covered in the equally commanding Boyz N the Hood, but what makes this cautionary tale stand out is not only the Hughes brothers' forceful story, (written with their friend, Tyger Williams) and direction, but the naturalness of then-newcomer leads Turner as Caine, Larenz Tate as O-Dog, and Jada Pinkett as Ronnie. They are so credible--occasionally frighteningly so--that the repressive universe of violent ghetto life is captured effectively. Life as portrayed here--and no doubt accurately so--is both figuratively and literally narrow. As a very young boy, Caine witnesses his dad murdered over something inconsequential, and his mom OD. His is a world where respect comes from intimidation, power from violence. Despite his understanding of right and wrong (values passed on by a good friend, his kind grandparents, a caring teacher), his life and its entrapments are too much to overcome. --N.F. Mendoza
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