THE UNTOUCHABLES OF THE 90S.
New Jack City
Pros: Wesley Snipes is superb, the direction is done well and Van Peebles stages the action sequences well.
Cons: Some pretty weak dialogue, dated elements.
New Jack City is one film that is regarded as a classic by many people. But truthfully, in some regards it has not aged well. It’s not a case of wine turning totally into vinegar. But people who are new to it might wonder what all the fuss was back in the early 90s.
Many a review has compared NJC to Scarface. But I think a more accurate comparison can be made with another one of Brian De Palma’s more popular films: 1987’s The Untouchables. That film, which focused on Al Capone and the cops who took him down, was a great example of 1920s set gangster pulp. NJC, directed by Mario Van Peebles in his directorial debut, sets out to do the same for the 1980s crack era in New York City. Hence, it feels in some ways like a classic gangster picture mixed with elements of blackspoloitation films and social commentary.
Wesley Snipes takes the lead role in a starmaking performance as drug lord Nino Brown. Brown has become quite rich by selling crack to poor people. But he realizes that he can get richer by setting up a distribution center. So, along with his men, he seizes control of an apartment complex, forces the tenants out and uses it to to distribute his crack.
Out to take Nino down are some streetwise cops. There’s Ice-T in his acting debut as Scott Appleton, a streetwise cop with a personal vendetta against Nino. Then there’s Judd Nelson as Nick Paretti, a cop who’s been through addiction himself. Appleton and Paretti are teamed up by their boss Detective Stone (Van Peebles). As is par for the course in movies of this type, they don’t get along at first. But eventually develop a grudging respect for one another amidst a termination to get the job done.
Discussing the cast, I would be remiss without mentioning Chris Rock in his first major role as Pookie, a young addict. We first meet him when he’s involved in a deal with an undercover Appleton. He tries to rip Appleton off and this leads to one of the better foot chases I’ve seen in a movie. After Scotty bust him, he later encounters him again after he’s become addicted to crack. He gets him into rehab. Afterwards, Pookie wants ot help brign Nino down. Despite his doubts, Appleton agrees.
Ice-T, Nelson, Rock and Van Peebles are all decent in their roles. But by far, the best performance in New Jack City is by Wesley Snipes. He plays Nino Brown as a charismatic yet truly evil sociopath. He sees his crack business as just that: a business. He doesn’t care how many people are hurt or killed because of it. Yet he’s not over the top as many villains of his ilk often are. He knows when to go over and when to dial down. This performance alone makes this worth watching.
Van Peebles direction is also done well. Prior to this, his main experience had been directing television. Here he transitions to movies quite well. He shows off a command of filmmaking that isn’t over the top. But doesn’t fall into just point the camera and shoot territory either. This film started his career off promisingly. But sadly, with a few exceptions, he never quite lived up to the potential he displayed here.
On the debit side, there is the matter of some weak dialogue. Lines like “He’s gonna hanging with Elvis” and ” I wanna shoot you so bad my dick’s hard” sound as laughable when spoken as they do being typed. Plus, there are certain elements of the film that immediately scream late 80s early 90s. While this was one of the first films to legitimately deal with the hip-hop culture, it’s more dated than other films of that era that also took it on.
On the whole however, New Jack City still does hold up. It may not be fresh. But it can still be enjoyed as a decently made period piece and a chance to see Wesley Snipes give a great performance. It doesn’t transcend the genre. But as far as genre films go, it’s a damn good one.