A powerful urban-drama that deserves mention alongside Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society amongst the best entries in the genre. In fact - and I'm about to say something that some people may consider to be heresy - this one might even be a little better than those fine titles. Certainly, it does have a more unique perspective and this goes beyond just the geographical differences (the earlier two films transpired in South Central L.A. whereas this takes place in New York City). One thing that sets this one apart is that it's as much a thriller as it is a drama - the main character is given surprising depth and development (surprising since he's only 12 years-old) and there is plenty of tension ans suspense inherent in his dilemma. Add to that a taut, unpredictable storyline that keeps viewers guessing and on the edge of their seats and the end result is a compelling experience from start to finish.
Another aspect of this film that sets it apart from most other genre efforts is the musical score. This is not something I usually discuss in most of my other reviews but it deserves mention in this instance. Absent is the aggressive, rap-heavy soundtrack that typically permeates most films of this sort. In it's place is an understated composition provided by no other than Stewart Copeland (that's right, the drummer of The Police). I remember seeing this for the first time and think I'd rented the wrong film when I witnessed the opening scene, which features Copeland's score playing over images of a deserted intersection that looks like something out of an old Western. Eventually, we're shown a brief montage of how that intersection develops into part of what would become modern-day New York (circa 1994, that is). That was when I knew that I'd be in for a unique but fascinating ride.
And it doesn't stop there. This film continues to defy conventions as it goes along. After all, how many hood films have the game of chess as such an integral element of the plot? That game gets plenty of exposure here both literally (the title character often meets with his father, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in the park for matches) and figuratively (the younger man must apply the lessons learned from his father to a much riskier and potentially deadly real-life game) and this adds a layer of complexity to an already involved plot-line. By effectively combining so many diverse elements Boaz Yakin (a longtime screenwriter who was making his directorial debut here), has crafted a film that is simultaneously like and unlike other films about the inner-city.
In the tradition of the best urban dramas, Fresh doesn't glamorize life in the hood. After all, this is the sort of place where a 12-year-old has to push drugs in order to survive and where children in the same age range can be brutally murdered in broad daylight at a local basketball court. This is an often harsh existence and Fresh doesn't shrink from depicting it as such but neither does it revel in the bloodshed. Most of the violence is limited to only a few scenes with some of the more potentially graphic moments (such as the beating of two characters to death with a metal chain) taking place just out of view of the camera. There is no doubt that Fresh often dishes out some tough, uncompromising material, but none of it is gratuitous and that makes it all the more realistic and disturbing.
Thankfully, Yakin's excellent vision extended to his casting choices. As the somewhat taciturn title character, Sean Nelson, making his screen debut here, does a superlative job of depicting the toughness and keen intelligence concealed beneath the seemingly unassuming exterior. This performance is every bit as assured as that of another child thespian, Natalie Portman, who made her debut in another 1994 film, The Professional. It's a shame that Nelson, unlike Portman, hasn't done much since then (although he did get some work in the immediate wake of this film) because based on his performance here, he definitely has what it takes. Luckily, the young actor has a strong cast supporting him. As Fresh's alcoholic, chess-playing father, Samuel L. Jackson, who could also be seen that same year stealing scenes in his star-making turn in Pulp Fiction, proves that he can be just as riveting when circumstances call for a lower-key. Too often these days, the actor is better known for his more flamboyant performances so much so that it's easy to forget that he's capable of much more. Roles like this give the veteran performer a chance to display some of his less-publicized range as an actor. Other notables in the cast include Giancarlo Esposito (who, like Jackson, was once a Spike Lee regular) as Fresh's mentor and the local smack dealer, Esteban and N'Bushe Wright as Fresh's addicted older sister, Nichole.
In its own way Fresh is just as strong of an indictment of modern-day inner-city life as the aforementioned Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society but it never resorts to the sort of sermonizing that the earlier films occasionally courted. Rather, it uses subtlety to get its points across and nowhere is that more apparent than in the final scene, where one character must finally bear the emotional weight of his decisions. Ultimately, this is just one of many moments that set this film apart and make it just as special and synonymous with its title now as it was when it first crossed our collective vision.