Not much more than an "urban" modernization of the classic old "Scarface" story (vicious-yet-charismatic drug lord enjoys a swift rise before suffering a rapid descent), New Jack City has enjoyed a long and loyal fan-following since it hits the streets back in 1991. It may be a fairly black & white (no pun intended) look at the front-line war on drugs, but NJC works a lot better as a straight "crime flick" than it does as a deep-thinking cautionary tale.
Wesley Snipes stars as the unflinchingly mercenary drug kingpin known as Nino Brown. The year is 1986, and the crack epidemic is just about to hit New York City in a big, ugly way -- which means that Nino and his crew are about to hit the big time. The CMB (Cash Money Brothers) overtake a massive apartment complex called The Carter, and it's there that Nino's minions will stake their claim: Manufacturing facilities, distribution routes, and a captive collection of customers are what The Carter can offer, and Nino storms the place like it was a medieval castle.
Meanwhile, on the law enforcement side of the equation, Scotty Appleton (Ice-T) and Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson) are enlisted to take the CMB boys down, and down hard. All the cops have in their arsenal is a disapproving Lt. Stone (Mario Van Peebles) and a rehabilitated crackhead (Chris Rock). But Peretti & Appleton also have one extra weapon: Their venomous disdain for Nino, combined with a casual disrespect for acceptable police procedure.
And of course there are the sidekicks, the henchmen, the abused women-folks, the corrupted, the addicted, and the outraged. It's a fairly simple story, all things considered, and it's one we've heard more than a few times before. But there's a vibrant color and slick fluidity to New Jack City, which makes it easy to overlook the more obvious spots and focus on the assets.
Simply put: New Jack City offers the very best performance of Wesley Snipes' career. As Nino, he's eminently hate-worthy and entirely villainous, but the actor brings a larger-than-life swagger that makes Nino just a little bit charming ... even if you just can't wait to see the guy get smacked down. In his debut performance, Ice-T ... well, Ice might not be the most polished actor in Hollywood, but if the plan was to give us a convincingly street-smart hustler-cop, then I say it was a solid casting decision. T is a little rough around the edges (and this lack of experience would haunt him in later roles), but the guy works quite well here.
The periphery is populated with numerous colorful characters. Judd Nelson, as dangerous cop Nick Peretti, is appropriately rough and angry; Bill Nunn, cast against type as a stuttering, gun-toting henchman, does some solid work with an under-developed role; Allen Payne offers a rather strong turn as Nino's right-hand man; and Chris Rock's portrayal of a tortured crack fiend ... well, it has to be seen to be believed.
Which brings me to the one glowing and fairly annoying problem with New Jack City. Chris Rock's character, the deviant junkie known as Pookie, seems like he was ported in from an entirely different movie. The scenes in which poor Pook is re-introduced to the crack-pipe play out like the world's most obvious and pedantic anti-drug commercial. It actually feels like a particularly gruesome Public Service Announcement has been wedged into a fairly tight-knuckled little crime thriller. Seems that director Mario Van Peebles was unwilling to display much subtlety where "the evils of crack" are concerned, and it's this relatively ham-fisted approach that sucks some of the hardcore tragedy out of the movie.
But it's a somewhat minor complaint, all things considered. New Jack City doesn't offer a whole lot that's new to the "city drug war" genre, but it was one of the first flicks to dress the tale up for a new generation. It's basically Scarface with a hip-hop mentality, but it's also a slickly entertaining and consistently engaging crime thriller, and (obviously) it's a film that stands up for repeat viewings.
Video: The Widescreen Anamorphic transfer looks pretty damn great. Van Peebles uses a lot of dark and moody color schemes, and I was pleased to notice how crisp the picture quality was. I've never owned the bare-bones DVD from several years back, so I cannot compare the transfers, but I doubt that the New Jack fans will find much to complain about here.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track practically pulsates with guts, gunfire, and great old-school hip-hop. Also included is a DD 2.0 French track, as well as optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
On disc 1 you'll find the original theatrical trailer and a feature-length audio commentary with actor/director Mario Van Peebles. It's a pretty mellow and informative solo track, as MVP covers the actors, the production, and the true-life tragedies that inspired the screenplay. It might have been a good idea to get Ice-T or screenwriters Barry Cooper & Tom Wright onto the commentary, but Mario keeps the info flowing along just fine by himself. Not one of the flashiest yak-tracks you'll ever hear, but the hardcore fans will undoubtedly appreciate the inside info.
Moving on to disc 2, you'll find three featurettes and a trio of music videos:
The Road to New Jack City is a 28-minute behind-the-scenes featurette packed with recent interview segments by Mario Van Peebles, Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Chris Rock, Judd Nelson, Allen Payne, and producer Doug McHenry. There's a welcome frankness regarding the movie that helps to make this retrospective featurette a lot more enlightening than many of its ilk. Good stuff.
NJC: A Hip-Hop Classic runs approximately 20 minutes and features some insights from the hip-hop culture. Ice-T, Warren G, Fab 5 Freddy, Cassandra Mills, DJ Big Boy, Ed Lover, Nappy Roots, Moses Edinborough, and several others share some opinions and observations on how New Jack City became such a seminal film in the black youth culture. And this isn't just a bunch of rappers screaming about "this movie rocks!" There's some solid insight offered here.
Harlem World: A Walk Inside is a cool little mini-tour through the history (and the present-day) of Harlem. Christopher Moore, historian and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, guides Mario Van Peebles and his kids through the museum and guides them on a walking tour of the Harlem streets. This 10-minute featurette offers a small taste of black history in Harlem, and hopefully it will inspire a few viewers to dig a little deeper.
Rounding out the second platter is a trio of music videos: Ice-T's New Jack Hustler (Nino's Theme), Christopher Williams' I'm Dreamin', and Color Me Badd's I Wanna Sex You Up.
New Jack City seems just a little bit preachier than I remember, but it also stands up as a perfectly entertaining crime thriller. It's got some action, a lot of completely quotable patches of dialogue, several solid acting performances, lots of funky beats, and a message that's as important today as it ever was: Don't do crack.