An impressive first feature from the 21-year-old twin brother directing team of Albert and Allen Hughes, MENACE II SOCIETY is a gritty, uncompromising take on life in the Watts section of Los Angeles. MENACE chronicles the short, hopeless life of Caine (Tyrin Turner), a small-time drug

dealer with a vague, barely articulated desire to escape his surroundings. The son of a dealer (Samuel L. Jackson) and an addict, both now dead, Tyrin's hope of escape is thwarted by a culture in which macho one-upmanship, combined with a liberal supply of guns, makes life little more than a cycle

of revenge killings.

Although MENACE has invited comparisons to BOYZ N THE HOOD, it's not as good a film as John Singleton's breakthrough hit. It's edgier and savvier, and probably achieves a more accurate feel for life in a gun-crazy urban crucible. But it lacks the vision, and the fully defined characters, of BOYZ.

Tyrin never becomes more than the sum of his conflicting impulses--he's a composite sample of a social group rather than a fully-fledged individual. The story, too, tries to cover too many bases, finally abandoning its urgent, streetwise edge in favor of B-movie melodrama. Nonetheless, MENACE is a

compelling, visceral piece of work. Its most disturbing subplot--in which Tyrin's friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) shoots a Korean store owner, and then watches the act over and over on the videotape taken from the store's security camera--has a horrifying, unforgettable ring of truth.