New Jack City

Dir: Mario Van Peebles, 1991. Starring: Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Allen Payne, Judd Nelson, Mario Van Peebles. Black Cinema.
New Jack City
Going back all the way to the beginning of the talkies, the gangster flick, with its rise-and-fall narrative, has always been a dependable formula for Hollywood. And whether it’s Cagney or Pacino, the movies seem to have more fun with the “rise,” while the “fall” often feels like a tacked on message to mitigate how glamorous the first half may have seemed. The inner-city crime saga New Jack City is no different; though characters may take the high road and exclaim to the camera about how much the crack epidemic is ravishing the hood, really it’s an excuse to show the playas living large with their champagne in the pool, nifty guns, foxy ladies, and horribly colorful 1991 hip-hoppity fashions. And like so many gangster flicks before and since, New Jack City is a lot of fun and, as long as you don’t try to buy into its sermonizing, it holds up well as a cartoony period piece.

Here, the cops and dealers are showcased equally. For the good guys, you have undercover NY cop Scotty Appleton (rapper Ice-T, in his first lead acting role); he may be tough but he shows some heart to a junkie stick-up kid named Pookie, (comedian Chris Rock, in a rare dramatic performance that may’ve encouraged him to work on his stand-up more). Scotty helps him kick the dope after busting him. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, dealer Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) is able to enhance his business when he is introduced to a new cocaine concoction called “crack.” With his top lieutenants, Gee Money (Allen Payne) and Duh Duh Duh Man (Bill Nunn, Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing) they get the posse together (called the "Cash Money Brothers") and take over an apartment building, turning it into a successful crack assembly line and retail outlet. 

Scotty’s boss, with the super cool name Stone (director Mario Van Peebles), has put together a task force to rid the streets of this new deadly drug and teams him with another maverick cop, Nick Peretti (the charisma-challenged actor Judd Nelson), a hot headed semi-racist, who even wears sunglasses at night. They recruit the newly clean Pookie to go work at the drug plaza and gather some intel on the dealers. But even being wired with camera can’t keep Pookie off the rock; he goes a little crazy on the job and blows his cover, so the dealers hook him up to a bomb and kill him. This leads to the breaking up of the task force and Scotty going lone wolf to take down Nino himself.

The less depressing side of the story has Nino rising to power, hanging with the ladies at a nightclub where dancers do synchronized moves (while hip hop icons Fab 5 Freddy and Flavor Flav make cameos). He also has drug turf battles with sweaty Italian Mafiosos straight out of central casting (and recalling plot lines from ‘70s blaxploitation cinema). Posing as a dealer himself, Scotty eventually befriends Nino and works to get closer to the operation to take his revenge on him.

Director Mario Van Peebles is the son of ‘70s renaissance soul man Melvin Van Peebles—director of the film that is considered the Citizen Kane of blaxploitation back in ’71, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and more recently, the subject of the wonderful documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). So Mario grew up in the biz; he even famously played Young Sweetback in his Dad’s flick. By the ‘80s he was working steadily as an actor, most notably as a rebellious hipster soldier in Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge and hamming it up as a Rastafarian with a sleepwalking Michael Caine in the unnecessary Jaws: the Revenge. In the ‘80s the ambitious actor also began directing TV (including episodes of 21 Jump Street); New Jack City was his first feature behind the camera and still his most successful film. He made a couple more respectable flicks including Posse and Panther (though he miscast himself as Stokely Carmichael) and his Baadasssss!, where he played his dad is a lot of fun, though his ten or so other go’s as a director have been less memorable. 

New Jack City came at the right moment; it’s much less self-serious than Spike Lee’s crack epic Clockers (though Clockers had a brilliant Richard Price book to work off of, it, too, feels dated, but less fun than NJC). Writers Thomas Lee Wright and Brian Michael Cooper took the plot of New Jack City straight from the sensational news coverage of young dealers like The Chambers Brothers in Detroit who went from turning their street peddling into tightly controlled million dollar crack industries. For Wesley Snipes, after dancing in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video, he had some solid supporting roles including Mo’ Better Blues, until New Jack deservedly made him a star. As Nino, he oozes magnetism and star power, completely carrying the film and single-handedly raising it a notch. Nino may come off less like a dealer you may see on the nightly news and more a James Bond villain with his master plan, but that’s what makes New Jack City more engaging. This is no docudrama; it’s about ten levels below TV’s The Wire on the realism and credibility scale, but not every movie about the scourge of the inner city needs to be deadly important. New Jack City may only pretend to be important but then again don’t most comic books?
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 17, 2012 8:52am
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