Michael, nicknamed Fresh (portrayed by Sean Nelson), is a 12-year-old kid running drugs for gangsters, notably Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito). Inspired by the chess lessons of his father, an alcoholic speed-chess master (Samuel L. Jackson), Fresh devises and executes a brilliant plan to extricate himself and his drug-addicted sister (N'Bushe Wright) from their hopeless lives.
12-year-old Michael a.k.a. "Fresh" stops at a latina woman's apartment to pick up dime bags of heroin before he goes to school. Fresh notices that she has given him the wrong amount and Fresh tries to warn her that his boss Esteban will be angry with the incorrect amount. He sees the track marks on her arm, indicating that she is a drug addict trying to swindle him out of his delivery. He leaves, disgusted.
Next, he visits another apartment where several women and one man, Herbie, are measuring and cutting bricks of heroin. Herbie insults Fresh and calls him a little boy doing a man's job. Herbie also makes crude comments about Fresh's sister, which angers Fresh. He rushes out because he is late to school. He meets up with another of Esteban's employees to count the drugs. The employee tells Fresh that Esteban wants to see him after handing Fresh his share of the money.
Fresh arrives at school where he is his scolded by his teacher, Mrs. Coleman, for being late. Fresh acts like a normal boy by playing around with his best friend, Chuckie. At recess, the boys watch the girls' cheerleading team and Fresh talks to one of the girls, Rosie.
After school, Fresh goes to a forested, abandoned area to put his new earnings in a secret hiding place, where we see that he has amassed a substantial savings. From there, he goes to his grandmother's house where all of his aunt and cousins reside.
The next morning, Fresh is selling drugs when a desperate drug addict offers sex to Fresh in exchange for drugs, but sends her away. Jake, one of the lookouts present, finds this amusing. At the end of the day when a man by the name of Kermit does not show up to pay Jake the fifty dollars he owes him, Jake becomes angry and threatens to kill Kermit. Fresh seeks out Corky--Jake and his boss--in order to get paid, but Corky tries to short him. Fresh demands more money after reminding Corky that the lookouts like Jake make $50 while his pay is $100 for selling the drugs. Corky agrees.
Fresh takes the subway to Washington Square to play chess with a man who is undefeated for cash while his father Sam, a skilled chess player, sits at another table watching him. After winning, Fresh plays his father but he loses. Sam criticizes Fresh's strategy and Fresh leaves to visit Chuckie, who proposes to enter their dog, Roscoe, in a dogfight to earn cash. Fresh refuses so Chuckie urges Fresh to get him a job with Esteban. Fresh rebuffs his suggestion, saying that Chuckie is too immature to be a drug dealer, and agrees to enter their pet into the fight. Fresh leaves him to visit Esteban, who is annoyed that Fresh is selling crack for other drug dealers. He warns Fresh that when it comes to crack dealing, Fresh will either die addicted to his own product or be killed by rival dealers or unstable drug addicts.
He leaves Esteban to go to the corner store where Nichole works. He bumps into James, Nichole's drug dealing boyfriend, who insults his appearance before allowing him to see Nichole. Fresh warns Nichole that Esteban is interested in her and asks her why she stays with James. She tells him that she doesn't love James; only the drugs he can supply her with. Fresh goes to watch a neighborhood basketball game, where Jake begins to show jealously towards a small kid, Curtis, and pushes him to the ground during the game. After Curtis humiliates Jake by scoring the winning basket, Jake becomes angered and leaves the court. Rosie sees Fresh and walks over to talk to him. As she does, Jake comes back with a gun and begins shooting at Curtis, killing him. Everyone leaves except for Fresh. Fresh, being the only remaining person at the playground, walks past Curtis' dead body to find Rosie on the ground, holding her neck and choking on blood. A stray bullet struck her in the neck, killing Rosie in the crossfire. The police arrive shortly, demanding information, but Fresh refuses.
Fresh plays chess with his father Sam again who scolds him for being distracted. Fresh loses to his father, but is able to put his Father's king in "check" for the 1st time. Later, Chuckie and Fresh arrive at the dogfight, where Fresh spots Jake. Fresh tries to convince Chuckie to take Roscoe out of the fight, but nevertheless, their dog wins. Chuckie wants to enter him into another fight but Fresh stops him, agreeing to get him a job with Esteban. They go to Esteban's apartment where they accidentally walk in on Esteban and Nichole finishing having sex. Esteban tells them to wait in another room, where Chuckie asks for a job. Esteban dismisses Chuckie after Chuckie boasts of "busting those dope moves" and tells Fresh that he plans to groom Fresh to his protege and wants Fresh to stop selling for other dealers.
Meanwhile, Corky has the police's attention since Jake's shooting attracted attention. Fresh takes his own savings to a cocaine source, Hector, under the pretense of being the runner for Corky. Hector refuses to hand over the drugs to Fresh, fearing that the police will come after him. Fresh threatens him and offers him a big sum of cash, which we understand to be the entirety of Fresh's personal savings. Hector takes the cash and tells Fresh where to pick up the drugs. Fresh says that the police have wire-tapped Corky's phone numbers and tells Hector not to call Corky.
At school, Chuckie can't resist bragging about his supposed new job for Esteban. After school, he and Fresh buy science textbooks to hide the drugs. Fresh and Chuckie begin to get into a verbal altercation throughout the trip when Chuckie almost gets arrested on the train for talking back to an officer, which Fresh had to intervene and deescalate the situation. As Fresh is bickering with Chuckie, they go to an abandoned house where Fresh hides their stash in the floorboards while Chuckie keeps lookout. When leaving the building, three men step out from behind the corner, approaching them and armed. Fresh begins to run but goes back to Chuckie, who has now drawn his gun at the assailants. Chuckie tries to shoot at the men and run, but trips. The gun falls under a car and Chuckie tries to grab it but an assailant shoots the tire and it flattens under Chuckie's hand, crushing it. Fresh runs back over to help him, but Chuckie is stuck. Another assailant fires a shot at the car, prompting Fresh to run away and abandon Chuckie. The assailants walk over to Chuckie and kill him. Fresh is questioned by the police at the police station, realizing that Fresh has been at the scene of now two deaths. However, since they have no evidence to detain him, they let him go.
Back at home, Fresh's aunt remonstrates sadly with him for getting involved in gunfire and tells him that she cannot risk the lives of her eleven other children for him. She informs him that he will be sent to a group home for a month. At school, Fresh's friends blame him for Chuckie's death and truly alone, Fresh shoots Chuckie's dog, Roscoe. When Fresh goes outside, Jake forces him in the car with the three assailants (revealing that Jake was behind the ambush on Fresh and Chuckie). They bring Fresh to a room where Corky is waiting.
Corky is upset that Chuckie's bragging about moving base for Esteban (the same drugs that Corky is selling) got back to him and that Esteban is encroaching on his product. The drugs that Jake and the assailants took off of Chuckie reveal that both Fresh and Chuckie were carrying crack cocaine. Corky grabs big chain links and threatens to beat Fresh to death to send a message to rival dealers. However, Fresh lies to the other henchmen that Fresh was being forced to sell for Jake. An astonished Jake pulls out his guns and walks over to shoot Fresh, but Corky's henchmen turn on Jake and Jake's friend Red. Both Jake and Red try to convince everyone that Fresh is lying. However, Fresh insists that Jake and Red were planning to oust Corky and he was only saying that he was selling for Esteban as protection. Fresh tells them to call Hector, who will reveal the truth. Corky calls Hector, where Hector confirms that he met with Fresh. The conversation is short, with Hector expressing concern over Corky' phone being wire-tapped, as Hector was told was the case, by Fresh. Corky then whips Red and Jake to death. Corky turns to Fresh and asks who else is involved. Fresh names James.
Fresh then goes to Esteban's warehouse and tells him that Corky's crew had jumped him and says that Corky is planning to sell heroin as well. He tells Esteban that Corky's distributor is James and the two are planning to meet that night. He also adds that Nichole is seeing James secretly because James is plotting with Corky to take Esteban out. Corky and his men arrive at James' place and storm in while Esteban, Fresh, and two other men wait in Esteban's car, watching them. Esteban signals his henchmen to follow him and tells Fresh and Herbie to stay put.
Inside, Esteban's crew kills James, Corky, and Corky's men. Afterwards, they drive to Esteban's place and Esteban sees Nichole is there. He tells his henchmen to take Fresh home but Fresh makes them stop the car, claiming that he will spend the night at a friend's house. He runs into a convenience store and makes a phone call on a pay phone.
He then shows up at Esteban's apartment, claiming that he couldn't go home. Esteban lets him stay because he wants to confront Fresh for telling Nichole that he found her father in Staten Island and for urging her to leave for a rehabilitation center. Angry, Esteban demands to know what else Fresh is hiding from him. The three argue and Esteban tries to force Nichole to stay with him.
The police arrive and as Esteban goes to answer the door, Fresh hides something under the bed. The police officer turns out to be Sgt. Perez, who reveals that he is responding to a call about a domestic dispute. Esteban denies any argument and suggests they have the wrong apartment. Fresh comes forward and tells Perez that his sister is scared to speak up and how Esteban is a drug dealer who killed James and is now threatening his sister. Esteban swears that he is clean but Fresh tells Sgt. Perez to check under the bed. The policeman looks under the bed and find Esteban's gun (which he removed from the car after the shooting earlier) and the drugs Fresh planted. The police take Esteban away and Sgt. Perez promises to protect Fresh and his sister from any retaliation. Fresh expresses that he no longer wants to live in any "projects". The movie ends with Fresh playing chess with his father, where he cries.Sean Nelson as Fresh
Giancarlo Esposito as Esteban
Samuel L. Jackson as Sam
N'Bushe Wright as Nichole
Ron Brice as Corky
Jean-Claude La Marre as Jake
Jose Zuniga as Lt. Perez
Luis Lantigua as Chuckie
Yul Vazquez as Chillie
Cheryl Freeman as Aunt Frances
Anthony Thomas as Red
Curtis McClarin as Darryl
Charles Malik Whitfield as Smokey
Victor Gonzalez as Herbie
Guillermo Diaz as Spike
Anthony Ruiz as Hector
Natima Bradley as Rosie
Upon release, it received critical acclaim
Based on 38 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an 89% approval rating from critics, with an average score of 7.4/10.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times commended the "thoughtfulness of [Boaz] Yakin's direction" and wrote that he "doesn't include many violent episodes in this film, but the ones he stages are made so meaningful that their impact is brutalizingly intense." She also complimented Adam Holender's cinematography and commented that he makes the film "extraordinarily handsome, with a sharply sunlit look that brings out the hard edges in its urban landscapes. The subject and visual style could not be more forcefully matched." Although he did not find its second half believable, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a B rating and called Nelson a "wondrous young actor". James Berardinelli called Jackson's supporting role "an example of an actor at his most focused" and called Fresh "an atypical thriller -- a film that succeeds because it defies many conventions of its genre." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and called it "a movie filled with drama and excitement, unfolding a plot of brilliant complexity". He praised Nelson's performance as "extraordinary" and found its plot "focused and perceptive", praising it for its social commentary:
[V]iolent death is a fact of life in America today. Guns have made our cities unsafe for children. What Fresh does is bring a new perspective to those facts, in the form of both drama and thriller. This is not an action film, not a clever, superficial thriller, but a story of depth and power, in which the dangerous streets are seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old who reacts with the objectivity he has learned from chess, and the anger taught to him by his life.
The film won the Filmaker's Trophy at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, and in 1995, Nelson won for Best Debut Performance at the Independent Spirit Awards.
A soundtrack album was released on August 30, 1994 by RCA Records. It featured three songs by the Wu-Tang Clan and nine songs by old school hip hop artists, including The Cold Crush Brothers, Whodini, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Allmusic editor Chris Witt gave the soundtrack album four-and-a-half out of five stars and noted its old school tracks as the highlights, writing that "The contrast between the life and color of the old school tracks and the unrelenting gloom of the Wu-Tang cuts, produced over ten years later, suggests that hip-hop may have lost something in the intervening years."