New Jack City

1991, Movie, R, 97 mins

Review

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1991 will go down in movie history as the year African-American films finally came into their own. Buoyed by Spike Lee's success, studios and investors embraced young black male filmmakers, and the predominance of a paternalistic, condescending, white view of black life seems to be ebbing. Of course, not every young black filmmaker is Spike Lee. The year's output has varied tremendously, both in quality and in popularity.

One of the bigger-budgeted films, Mario Van Peebles's NEW JACK CITY, attracted lots of publicity upon release due to rioting at theatres where it screened. This gave the movie an aura of provocativeness that the publicists could never have dreamed of, especially for what is, in the end, a cliche-ridden, sloppy piece of work. The public who hadn't seen the film worried that it was pro-drug and encouraged gang warfare. Ironically, NEW JACK CITY is preachy to a fault, letting the story stall often to mandate its anti-drug message.

As gang leader and cocaine dealer Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) brutally gains power on the mean streets of New York in 1986, he first learns about the next big thing--crack. Meanwhile, Scotty Appleton (Ice-T), an unorthodox, streetwise cop, arrests young Pookie (Chris Rock). By 1989, Brown has become immensely powerful in the neighborhood, and the police are at a loss as to how to deal with him. Detective Stone (Mario Van Peebles) talks his chief into bringing two rougher ex-cops back onto the force, Appleton and tough, slightly racist, ex-junkie Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson). They despise each other instantly.

As Brown cannily distributes food to the poor at Christmastime, winning their loyalty, Pookie, now a crackhead, is dragged into rehab by Appleton, who stays with him throughout. Once he's cleaned up, Pookie offers to help bring Brown down. He gets hired as a lookout in Brown's apartment building, and informs the cops of the huge production and distribution set-up. Meanwhile, Brown, drunk with power, takes his best friend Gee Money's (Allen Payne) girlfriend for himself. The cops hook Pookie up with a camera, unaware that the stress has made him revert to substance abuse. He gets inside, but acts silly and is caught and killed. The cops move in, but the gang destroys all their files before the shootout begins.

At Pookie's funeral, Detective Stone lets Appleton and Peretti know they're a liability now and are fired. Though still hating each other, they decide to bring Brown down themselves. Appleton wins the confidence of Gee Money, and gets him to introduce him to Brown as a connection. Brown is untrusting, but Appleton proves himself by protecting Brown from the angry, ranting Old Man (Bill Cobbs), a neighborhood fixture, and a Mafia attack. Stone rehires Peretti and Appleton. When Appleton tries to make a sale to Brown, a cohort recognizes him from an earlier arrest, and all hell breaks loose. Appleton and Peretti save each other's life, but Brown gets away, and kills Gee Money. Appleton and Peretti track Brown down and Appleton beats him up in front of a crowd. In court, Brown blames society, names some names, and gets one year in prison. But on his way out of the courtroom, he's killed by the Old Man.

One must assume that Van Peebles was sincere in his desire to make The Ultimate Crack Movie. But in trying to do so, he instead created a pastiche of anti-drug montages, held together by a series of cliches from gangster and older black films (this becomes most obvious and laughable when a long scene is played out in front of a TV screen showing De Palma's SCARFACE, switching to Melvin Van Peeble's SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG, for no apparent reason). The casting is generally fine--Snipes having the star power to carry the movie forward, and Ice-T making a terrifically simmering debut--with two major exceptions.

First of all, what idiot thought of casting bratpacker Judd Nelson as a tough, streetsmart ex-junkie cop? Maybe they needed a white name actor for financing, but was Gary Busey too busy? But Nelson's problems pale next to Van Peebles himself, whose ego insists on showing himself only in glamorous shots. And while he was clearly trying to inspire kids to emulate his good-cop character, that doesn't mean he has to dress better than the drug dealers in every scene, and be carrying an unexplained baby during a meeting with his undercover cops!

Despite its preachiness, we all know NEW JACK CITY is making the right statement on drugs, racism, the system, etc. But the fact is it's not very good. If it had come out a few years ago, perhaps it would have been a revelation. But in comparison to DO THE RIGHT THING and BOYZ N THE HOOD it seems merely slick and phony. Van Peebles shows talent, and may someday prove to be a fine filmmaker, when, like his character in HEARTBREAK RIDGE, he stops being so childish and egotistical, and starts to become a real soldier in this new Hollywood army. leave a comment

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