Blue Hill Avenue

(2001)--Chronicling the lives of four inner-city friends from the mean streets of Boston's Roxbury neighborhood,

Blue Hill Avenue

combines elements from the 'hood films of the early '90s, with a '70s blaxploitation edge that recalls such classics as

Super Fly

. Director Craig Ross Jr. starts off with a climactic showdown between a small crew of gangsters led by Tristan (Allen Payne) and a rival gang. Before revealing what the final outcome will be, Ross takes the story back to the beginning, when Tristan and his friends are still in high school. Their lives take a dramatic turn after a deadly confrontation with a neighborhood crack dealer. The outcome of this battle helps to decide the fate of the four youngsters, leading them right into the path of Boston crime kingpin Benny (Clarence Williams III). Jump ahead several years, and Tristan and his crew are now grown men, running one of the most powerful dope operations in Boston. But the lifestyle has taken a heavy toll, and as is apt to happen in films of this genre, Tristan is looking to get out of the life.

Blue Hill Avenue isn't the most original film, but it is a cut above most of the other direct-to-video urban films that have been steadily cluttering up video-store shelves for the past several years. For one thing, Craig Ross is a talented filmmaker, as evidenced by his earlier, seldom-seen thriller Cappuccino. Not only does Ross know how to tell a story, he knows how to work with limited resources and still deliver maximum results. As a writer, Ross is not only clearly influenced by such classic films as Super Fly and Black Caesar, but he also appears to have studied the works of crime novelist Donald Goines.

And make sure you check out the audio commentary by Ross and actors William L. Johnson and Aaron D. Spears. These three provide one of the best and funniest play-by-plays in recent memory.

Graveyard of Honor (1976)--Best known for his yakuza films, depicting morally corrupt Japanese gangsters on self-destructive rampages, Kinji Fukasaku is credited with reinventing the yakuza film in the 1970s, first with his 1972 film Street Mobster and then with the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. But it is 1975's Graveyard of Honor that is considered to be his true masterpiece. Brimming with the requisite nihilism and the breakneck kinetic energy that are Fukasaku's trademarks, as well as the rollercoasterlike cinematography of Hanjiro Nakazawa, this is a great introductory film to the work of Fukasaku and the yakuza genre.

Inspired by the life of notorious Japanese gangster Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari), Graveyard of Honor is to the Japanese yakuza film what Goodfellas is to the American gangster film (with a touch of Scarface thrown in for good measure). But seeing as how Fukasaku's film predates both Scorsese's and De Palma's classics, it's important to place Graveyard of Honor in its proper place, at the highest ranks of gangster film.