Starring Wesley Snipes, Ice T, Allen Payne, Chris Rock, Mario Van Peebles, Michael Michele, Bill Nunn, Russell Wong, Bill Cobbs, Christopher Williams, Judd Nelson
Directed by Mario Van Peebles
Expectations: Moderate. I’ve always wanted to see this.
I think if I had seen New Jack City back in 1991, I would have loved it. It’s an interesting tale filled with sex, drugs and hip hop, but coming at it now it seems a little dated. Not that the tale itself is no longer relevant, it’s just so steeped in ’90s hip hop and fashion that it’s impossible not to notice it. For me, this is a good thing as I grew up in and remember the ’90s vividly, but for others it might be a different story entirely. But fuck all that, it’s Ice Fest baby, and we’re ringin’ in the event with a very enjoyable, modern Blaxploitation film.
New Jack City was Ice T’s first major role, and here he plays a reckless cop who’s out to bust the city’s crime lord played by Wesley Snipes. Snipes has taken over the Carter Apartments, creating a fortress to house his crack empire, and it’s up to Ice and his cop buddies to infiltrate it any way they can. New Jack City tells a layered story, more disjointed than the traditional narrative elements might suggest. Much of the story here is told through editing, and the audience is never treated as if they’re stupid. When we inexplicably cut to a wedding attended by Snipes and his troop, the next cut informs us who’s getting married and eventually why the scene is important. It’s hard to tell a compelling story this way, but New Jack City does a relatively good job at it.
Even though this is Ice Fest, New Jack City is Wesley Snipes’ movie. He carries the film with his dynamic performance of the drug lord Nino Brown, simultaneously making you think he’s cool and a total asshole, and all the while everyone knows he’s pure evil. Where some drug lord films might seek to glorify the rise to power (before ultimately showing that crime doesn’t pay), New Jack City impressed me immediately by signaling that Snipes’ lust for power and money would be his downfall. As the pure sounding voices of an a cappella street group sing about just that, we watch a montage of Snipes’ thugs murdering those that stand in their way, setting up their drug trade and Snipes getting fitted for a fly-ass suit. You can choose to ignore the warnings, but karma’s a bitch and it always comes around no matter how boss you look.
As much as I enjoy Ice T’s performance here, he just doesn’t have the acting chops to stand up to the likes of Snipes. There are definite moments of greatness, though, and for his first big role, he’s does a great job. And let’s not forget that Ice is a rapper, so his natural feel for lyrical flow definitely comes out in his acting as his ability to throw out lines with ease is on display throughout. Ice also contributes the rap theme for Nino Brown, and it’s a scorcher of a track, with Ice dropping dope rhymes over bass-thumping beats.
As a director, Mario Van Peebles definitely showed a lot of promise in New Jack City. This was his first film in the director’s chair, and while certain aspects definitely feel like it, the majority of New Jack City is very well put together. With his career choice, Mario clearly idolized his father growing up and it seems to have paid off. Maybe Melvin Van Peebles was right when he cast his 14-year-old son in the opening sex scene to the 1971 Blaxploitation classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, an overall disappointing film with one of the best titles of all time. That film launched the Blaxploitation genre in earnest, and I love the synchronicity of Mario Van Peebles throwing his hat into the ring long after the genre had faded.
What I found most interesting about New Jack City, though, was the tone, or rather the shifting nature of the tone. In one moment it’s violent in grand bloody fashion, the next it’s somber and wholly serious, while at other times it’s darkly comic. When it comes to the action scenes they’re wildly over the top and unbelievable, with such feats as Ice T dodging the machine gun fire of three men (who aren’t that far away) to save a small girl. While these occurrences are par for the course in a ’90s film (and really shouldn’t kill your enjoyment), they will definitely put off modern audiences who seek to criticize instead of simply enjoying the ride.
I’d be remiss not to mention Chris Rock’s excellent performance as Pookie the crack head, who manages to make the audience laugh as well as feel deeply when he takes his life down the wrong path. There’s one specific moment of his struggle that’s highlighted by what is perhaps the best shot in the film, as Peebles uses the Hitchcock Vertigo technique (or Dolly Zoom if you prefer) to great effect. The moment itself is already extremely sad and hard to watch, but the clever camerawork intensifies it in the best way possible.
If you’ve seen Scarface or American Gangster (which seems to crib all kinds of shit from this movie), you won’t be quite as engaged with this one, but I’d still recommend it if you want to see a great ’90s cast doin’ their thang. New Jack City is an anti-drug, crime movie that actually feels like it never glorifies the drug lifestyle, instead showing us how greed and deceit leads you down dark, dangerous paths. Interestingly, the character arcs for Ice T and his fellow policemen weren’t positive or glamorous either. In the drug world, no one is getting out the same they went in, and while New Jack City definitely has its flaws, its message leaves a lasting resonance that I will not soon forget.