The film touches on the lives of four youths growing up in Harlem. It follows the day-to-day activities in the young men's lives starting out as innocent mischief but growing more serious as time passes by. It also focuses on the struggles that these young men must go through everyday as well such as police harassment, rival neighborhood gangs and their families.
The film was shot in New York City, mainly in the Harlem area, in 1991.
Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Q (Omar Epps), Raheem (Khalil Kain), and Steel (Jermaine 'Huggy' Hopkins) are four friends growing up together in Harlem. They regularly skip school, instead spending their days hanging out at Steel's apartment, at a neighborhood arcade, and also a record store where they steal LPs for Q's DJ interests. Generally, they are harassed daily by the police or a Puerto Rican gang led by Radames (Vincent Laresca).
Fed up with all of the torment he and his friends have endured, Bishop decides that the group must go on to do bigger things in order to win respect. However, Q is unsure if he wants to become involved in a life of crime. One Saturday night, under Bishop's persistence, the friends decide to rob a local convenience store to teach the owner, Fernando Quiles, a lesson. At first Q hesitates to go through with the robbery, unsure whether it will be successful. He also fears it will affect his chances of participating in a DJ competition in which he has yearned to compete for years. After being pressured by his fellow crew members, he decides to join in. During the heist, Bishop shoots the owner in the head, killing him.
After fleeing the scene, the four young men gather in an abandoned building where they argue over the evening's events. Q, Raheem and Steel become angry at Bishop for killing Mr. Quiles, and Raheem demands that Bishop give the gun to him. Bishop resists, and a struggle ensues between the two, and Bishop shoots Raheem dead. Panicking, Bishop, Q and Steel flee to another abandoned building, where Bishop threatens to kill Q and Steel if they reveal to anybody that he murdered Raheem.
Q and Steel realize that Bishop is beginning to break down and is becoming addicted to the thrill of killing. They agree to give Bishop as wide a berth as possible. However, while attending Raheem's funeral, the two are surprised to see Bishop there. Bishop goes as far as to hug Raheem's mother and promise to find his killer. Q and Steel are mostly generally able to avoid Bishop, but he finds them and confronts them one at a time, questioning their loyalty.
After a scuffle, Bishop kills Radames. In order to cover his tracks, he begins planning to frame Q for the murders of Quiles, Raheem and Radames. Fearful of Bishop, Q resorts to buying a gun for his own protection. Meanwhile, Bishop confronts Steel in an alley, accusing him of disloyalty, and shoots him. However, Steel survives the attack and is rushed to the hospital, where he informs Q's girlfriend Yolanda (Cindy Herron) that he has been framed by Bishop. Fed up with both the tension and troubles brought upon him, Q throws his gun into the river and decides to confront Bishop unarmed. Q and Bishop meet up, where a scuffle and chase ensues.
Q is shot once in the arm during the chase, and he is subsequently chased into a building where a party is being held. Bishop begins firing into a group of partygoers in an attempt to hit Q, but Q escapes unharmed. Q disarms Bishop while he's distracted, and Bishop leaves the scene with Q following him. Q eventually finds Bishop on the roof of a high-rise building, and the two become engaged in a physical confrontation. Bishop eventually falls off the ledge, but is caught by Q. Bishop begs Q not to let go, but Q eventually loses his grip, and Bishop falls to his death.
As Q is leaving the rooftop, a crowd from the party gathers to see what happened. One of the people in the crowd turns to Q and says, "Yo, you got the juice now, man." Q turns to look at him, shakes his head in disgust, and walks away. The film ends with a flashback clip of the four friends together in happier times as Bishop yells, "Wrecking Crew!"Omar Epps as Quincy "Q" Powell
Tupac Shakur as Roland Bishop
Khalil Kain as Raheem Porter
Jermaine Hopkins as Eric "Steel" Thurman
Cindy Herron as Yolanda
Vincent Laresca as Radames
Samuel L. Jackson as Trip
George O. Gore II as Q's little brother Brian
Grace Garland as Q's mother
Queen Latifah as Ruffhouse MC
Oran "Juice" Jones as Snappy Nappy Dugout
Flex Alexander as Contest Auditioneer
Doctor Dré & Ed Lover as Contest Judges
Fab 5 Freddy as himself
Donald Faison as Student
Eric Payne as Frank
Victor Campos as Quiles
Jacqui Dickerson as Sweets
Pablo Guzmán as TV Reporter
The movie was filmed in 1991. Daryl Mitchell, Treach, Money-B, and Donald Faison had auditioned for the role of Roland Bishop, but none were right for the role. Tupac Shakur accompanied Money-B to the audition and asked producer Neal H. Moritz to read. He was given 15 minutes to rehearse before his audition, and he came back and nailed the role of Roland Bishop. Treach and Faison landed cameo roles as a rival gang member and a high school student, respectively.
The film received generally favorable reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 83% approval rating based on 18 reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, praising the film as "one of those stories with the quality of a nightmare, in which foolish young men try to out-macho one another until they get trapped in a violent situation which will forever alter their lives.". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B+" grading, based on how it depicts four young characters who try to gain complete self-control over their surroundings.
The film is an inflammatory morality play shot through with rage and despair. Like Boyz N the Hood and Straight Out of Brooklyn, it asks: When every aspect of your environment is defined by violence, is it possible to avoid getting sucked into the maelstrom?
Dickerson also received praise for his directorial skills:
Coming out from behind Spike Lee's camera, Ernest Dickerson has instantly arrived at the forefront of the new wave of black directors. His film aims for the gut, and hits it.