Fresh (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Never has chess been a more apt metaphor for life than in Boaz Yakin's feature debut, Fresh. Like Lawrence Fishburne in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Samuel L. Jackson sits in New York's Washington Square playing speed chess and dispensing valuable lessons about life. (As a trivia note, the chess advisor for this film was Bruce Pandolfini, whose real-life character was portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Searching for Bobby Fischer.) His son Michael (played with astonishing ability by Sean Nelson) eats up those lessons and promptly applies them to a far more dangerous game than the one in the park.

Michael, nicknamed Fresh by the drug lords who use him as a runner, has had the grisly misfortune of watching two children gunned down in cold blood. He knows the killer, and decides that if he orchestrates his revenge cleverly, he may be able to get both himself and his sister Nichole (N'Bushe Wright, from Zebrahead) out of the cycle of poverty and drugs they're trapped in. To succeed, however, he must play the perfect match. A false move means death at the hands of his mentor, Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito), the local smack distributor.

Fresh takes the setting and tone of Boyz 'N the Hood and Menace II Society and applies it to a thriller. Gone is the documentary-like quality of filmmaking as well as the gritty sense of immediacy. Fresh uses higher-quality film stock and a more traditional cinematographic style to distance the audience ever-so-slightly from the characters. This way, it's easier to appreciate the complexity of Michael's plan and the manner in which he arranges his masterful scheme of manipulation.

With a script as smart as the title character, Fresh keeps its viewers guessing. Having a sixth grader as the protagonist is a stroke of genius that adds a further layer of tension to an already taut storyline. Thirteen year old Sean Nelson's performance would make many older actors envious. Without a hint of awkwardness, he conveys the sharp intelligence behind Michael's wide- eyed, seemingly-innocent looks.

Samuel L. Jackson, who is becoming a familiar face these days (his other current film is Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction), is a scene-stealer as Michael's near-vagrant speed chess playing father. The role isn't large, but this is an example of an actor at his most focused.

Michael's father advises him that any piece on the chess board can be sacrificed to get the king. It is a lesson he takes to heart. Everyone becomes an expendable pawn in the high-stakes game, and there are casualties. The price of winning at all costs is depicted in the film's final shot. That's just one of the images that marks Fresh as an atypical thriller -- a film that succeeds because it defies many conventions of its genre.

Fresh (United States, 1994)

Director: Boaz Yakin
Cast: Sean Nelson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Cheryl Freeman, N'Bushe Wright
Screenplay: Boaz Yakin
Cinematography: Adam Holender
Music: Stewart Copeland
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 1994-08-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1