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MEAN STREETS IN 'FRESH,' A LITTLE BOY GROWS UP TOO FAST

YOUNG Sean Nelson, who plays the title character in "Fresh," accomplishes a difficult feat: He combines the most expressive of faces with the most coldly calculating actions.

Fresh is 12, but a 12 like none you've ever seen. His world on the streets of Brooklyn is made up almost entirely of drug runners, prostitutes, easy money and ready handguns. The language of this world is half threats, half obscenities. Fresh's only refuges are school, where he's learning to love girls, and home, where he's one of a dozen kids but at least there are no guns.

This sounds like the makings of a movie about a good kid who gets sucked into a bad world. But writer and director Boaz Yakin creates in "Fresh" something else entirely: a portrait of a boy embracing this edgy, treacherous economic culture, working within the system as it exists, finding his own angles. Only when Fresh sees his best friend shot to death by a rival dope cartel does he come to understand the terrible toll of this life, and engineer his way out of it in an ingenious series of double-crosses.

You want to root for him, but watching him "run rock" at $100 a day for his cocaine-rich big brothers is hard, very hard. And yet it's impossible to know how relentlessly pernicious is the world in which he finds himself. A neighbor tries to warn him off: "Don't go messing with that rock. I guarantee you that you'll be dead inside three, five years. Either you have a bullet in your head or a pipe in your mouth, either way you're dead."

And then: "Smack is the way to go."

How to judge a boy's reactions in a situation like that? How can he be responsible for his own life?

The violence in "Fresh" is crazy horrible, not because it's graphic (it's not) but because it seems to come from nowhere, or from everywhere. A boy is shot, for example, because he's such a good dribbler on the basketball court that he puts his opponent to shame. Out comes the gun, down goes the dribbler.

Against this madness stands Fresh's father, Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), who's absent from the house but who teaches his son chess in the hustler games at the park. The world of chess, with its rigid rules, its sense of order, its mannered play of thrust and parry -- all that exists sharply in relief to the anything-goes streets of Fresh's Brooklyn. The chess is aggressive and fast, with its own system of respect and disrespect, but it's a separate peace that, one senses, sustains Fresh.

For portraying such an ugly world, this is a beautifully made movie. Nearly every transition is a melt from one detail of a scene to the next scene, frequently with the legs of somebody running. The technique emphasizes the shifting allegiances and interconnectedness of Fresh and his friends.

And there are details that are heartbreaking in their exactness, such as Fresh rhythmically kicking his leg as his mother tells him she has to send him away to a group home because she can't handle him anymore. That kick, that squeaky sneaker betrays all the hurt and fear and frustration inside him. If strong language doesn't bother you and you're looking for realism, "Fresh" is a fine choice.

The first axiom of storytelling is that old saw, "Show, don't tell." That's especially true in a visual medium like film. The makers of "DROP Squad" seem to have been absent the day they taught that one.

Not that this Spike Lee-produced movie doesn't take on some serious issues in the black community. It does: such debates as honoring the past vs. living in the present, the effectiveness of violence vs. words in changing minds; the idea of assimilation vs. the idea of maintaining racial pride; the persuasive power of advertising vs. the individual's responsibility to make his own choices.

But all this is conveyed in such a clumsy shell that it goes nowhere fast. The DROP Squad of the title stands for Deprogramming and Restoration of Pride. They're a group of black men and women who kidnap people they think have betrayed the race. Their star target is Bruford R. Jamison Jr., a black ad executive working on campaigns to sell fried chicken and liquor to blacks. Bruford is a sellout, for sure: His campaign for Mumblin' Jack malt liquor features a rap jingle, a half-naked woman cozying up to a big bottle, and the tagline "Available everywhere black people are served."

So he's kidnapped and spirited to a basement dungeon for deprogramming. The punishment is made to fit the crime; a drug dealer, for example, is shoved into a coffin and tormented with a noose; a smarmy city councilman is forced to scurry around on all fours wearing a Ku Klux Klan hat. As for Bruford, he's tied up in a comfy office chair and screamed at for days.

At least it seemed like days. "DROP Squad" is verbose to the max, and at the end it's not even certain that the deprogramming has done any good.

Spike Lee has made long coattails of his success as a director, bringing young filmmakers along on the strength of his word. This one, I think, needs a couple more movies to get into the groove.

FRESH 1994, R, 114 minutes, Buena Vista Home Video (in release)
DROP SQUAD 1994, R, 98 minutes, MCA/Universal Home Video (to be released April 11)

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