One of the many reasons "Primal Fear" didn't work was because Ed Norton's character's transformation from good to evil was ultimately unconvincing, even though it was through no fault of his own.
In "American History X," Norton's character goes the other way, turning from evil to good, and the results are much more effective.
Actually, such a simplistic explanation of the plot doesn't really do justice to this ambitious but uneven social drama. Despite director Tony Kaye and the studio that bankrolled the picture, New Line Cinema, bickering over editing and running length, "American History X" scores on almost every point.
Admittedly, it's an easier film to admire than it is to like or enjoy it's so overstuffed with profane language, brutal violence and sexual material that some audience members who might have been receptive will obviously be turned off to what it's trying to say.
And of course, there is a definite danger that its messages will be misinterpreted. The film does such a powerful job of explaining the motivations behind the neo-Nazi characters that it could be accused of sympathizing with them.
Norton stars as Derek Vinyard, a young skinhead leader who is quickly rising to power among southern California's neo-Nazi population until he's sent to prison for viciously killing a black man whom he caught breaking into his vehicle.
But Derek's behind-bars experiences leave him a changed man. So much so that when he is released from prison he simply walks away from his former friends and his former life. Needless to say, that doesn't endear him to people from his past, which includes his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who has followed in his footsteps.
Horrified to see all his past mistakes reflected back at him, Derek desperately tries to convince Danny that he's headed down a similar path unless he sees the errors of his ways.
Though he's not exactly a physically intimidating presence, Norton is superb here, conveying the proper balance between the character's original menacing but charismatic tone, and a more soft-spoken, yet even more persuasive changed man.
Furlong is nearly as good, and age has toned down his once-shrill delivery. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have an excellent supporting cast, including Beverly D'Angelo and Jennifer Lien ("Star Trek: Voyager") as well as screen veterans Stacy Keach and Elliott Gould, who embody vastly different personal philosophies.
"America History X" is rated R for prevalent use of profanity, racial epithets and ethnic slurs, gunplay and violent beatings, gore, full male and female nudity, simulated rape, simulated sex, use of vulgar slang and vulgar gestures, and simulated marijuana use.