New Jack City (1991) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, strong violence, pervasive drug use, and language
Running time: 120 min.
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Judd Nelson, Allen Payne, Mario Van Peebles, Chris Rock, Bill Nunn, Christopher Williams, Michael Michelle, Russell Wong, Bill Cobbs, Vanessa Williams, Tracy Camilla Johns
Cameo: Nick Ashford, Fab 5 Freddy, Flavor Flav, Eek-A-Mouse, Keith Sweat, Guy, Troop, Levert
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Screenplay: Thomas Lee Wright, Barry Michael Cooper
Review published December 1, 2007
Wesley Snipes (Major League, Jungle Fever) is cast as Nino Brown, who catapults himself from two-bit crook to drug syndicate kingpin in the late 1980s by riding the wave of crack cocaine that took the inner cities by storm. To combat this new, powerful operation, the government gives funds to head up a new crime unit, led by NYPD detective Stone (Van Peebles, Jaws: The Revenge), who hires his own people -- a new breed of "new jack" cops who think like the hustler in the street. The two cops, Scotty (Ice-T, Breakin 2) and Nick (Nelson, From the Hip), don't see eye to eye, but one thing they can all agree on is that they want to take down Nino Brown. Trouble is, he's built himself a virtual fortress of crime that proves tough to crack.
New Jack City is a mixed bag, alternately exciting in its flashy camera work (the sweeping helicopter shots over the city landscape are truly magnificent) and vibrant colors, while at the same time, too fantastic to take seriously, despite being based on such real-life crime figures as Nicky Barnes and Detroit's The Chambers Brothers. The whole notion of the high-tech building that becomes a haven for the drug marketplace is in interesting idea, again taken from real life, but its use of technology and high-tech weaponry is blown up to sci-fi proportions. It's not that a gangster film needs to be serious to entertain, but when you have a moral and message to the story regarding the drug war, it loses credibility by always going for slick entertainment first, without an honest portrayal anywhere in the proceedings. The plot isn't anything remarkable, but the cartoonish characters are energetic, and even if the acting is spotty, Van Peebles (son of legendary cult filmmaker, Melvin), in his debut feature film directorial stint, keeps the action moving at a brisk enough pace to almost overcome the lapses in judgment when dealing with narrative pitfalls.
Wesley Snipes commands attention in a role that asks him to be charismatic and intimidating at the same time. The role, like all of the others in the film, lacks depth, but he makes the most of what he has to lift it above merely being a placeholder villain. His henchmen are cookie-cutter, looking more like one of those crooner R&B acts that tried to look thug to give them street appeal, unconvincingly. Given that Ice-T at this time wasn't a professional actor, he doesn't exactly disappoint, but given that he's playing the character that is the heart of the film from the cop perspective, he doesn't really have the chops to truly make us think he's driven by that inner fire that suggests he's on a crusade of justice. We may think it -- we just don't feel it. The same goes for Chris Rock (Boomerang, Beverly Hills Ninja), who is unimpressive, feeling much more like a plot device than a full-fledged human being, in his portrayal of a lost crackhead named Pookie.
New Jack City, like its near namesake of New Jack Swing in the world of music, was one of the first prominent attempts to merge hip hop culture with a broader-based, populist form without actually being a part of it. the soundtrack is far better than the film itself, but it's to Van Peebles' credit that he's able to exploit its catchiness for all it's worth. It feeds off of the energy of the popularity of the genre, and in that respect, it is of a certain appeal, especially as there have been many pretenders to the hip hop-based gangsta movie throne. Compared to those made today, it's a bit of a cult classic, but it falls far short of delivering the enduring epic qualities of Scarface (being half the length is part of that), the film to which it pays never-ending homage throughout. Like New Jack Swing itself, there was a time and a place for it in its contemporary heyday, but like most trends, they are quickly replaced by the next wave of marketed, recycled goods at the marketplace of ideas.
©2007 Vince Leo