A year after playing the righteous cop out to rid the city of the despicable drug lord in King of New York, Wesley Snipes revisited the urban underworld in Mario Van Peebles’ morality play about the scourge of crack cocaine.
This time, however, Snipes is wearing a black hat and flashing lots of bling—a braided gold chain, earrings, bracelets and rings—as he delivers an over-the-top performance as bad guy Nino Brown, the central figure in New Jack City.
The movie, one of the more popular urban gangster films of the 1990s, is riddled with bullets and clichés.
Brown is an entrepreneurial genius, the kind of guy who others look at and say, “if only he had put his skills to legitimate use.” Pookie (Chris Rock) is a street corner hustler who gets strung out on coke, cleans himself up and then goes to work undercover for the cops. But you know trying to do the right thing is going to end badly. And the cops—at least the cops who really understand what’s happening—are two misfits, Scotty (Ice-T) and Nick (Judd Nelson) who are thrown together because no one else on the force will work with them.
Scotty’s mother was killed long ago in a random act of street violence that you can be sure is going to connect to the cast of characters he is now investigating. And Nick, an Italian-American who talks ghetto, is wrestling with his own demons.
Van Peebles, who made his directorial debut here, also plays Stone, the police lieutenant to whom Scotty and Nick report. He and writers Barry Michael Cooper and Thomas Lee Wright have sprinkled the story’s dialogue with lots of 1990s social commentary. There are also plenty of visual comparisons between corporate America and the drug underworld.
Neither the director nor the writers seemed to be going for subtlety. There are, for example, two scenes in which Al Pacino’s Scarface is playing on a television in the background. Each time—as if you couldn’t guess—Pacino is spouting that classic “Say hello to my little friend!” line.
New Jack City does its best to match Scarface’s level of violence.
Nino Brown has structured his organization like a corporation and holds periodic board meetings where he discusses business and, on occasion, deals with members who have gotten out of line. One ends up with his hand impaled on the table after Brown pulls a blade from the top of his walking stick to make a point, so to speak.
The movie opens with a disloyal business associate being dropped into the East River from atop the Brooklyn Bridge. Brown gives him a fine send off (“See ya’ and I wouldn’t wanna be ya’ “) before splashdown. Shortly afterward he sets the tone for the film during a meeting in the back room of a dance club. With a half-dozen loyalists gathered around the table, he provides them with their marching orders.
“You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan era,” he says. “Times like this, people wanna get high.”
Brown’s organization has discovered crack cocaine and he sets up a foolproof marketing plan to take advantage of consumer demand. He and his associates literally take over an apartment complex that covers one city block, driving out the apartment owner and other drug dealers who lived and worked there.
The building is converted into a crack netherworld, with a courtyard populated by zombie-like addicts and a basement room set aside for production. Brown insists that all his workers package product in the nude—to cut down on thievery—which adds a number of gratuitous naked breast shots to the story.
As in King of New York, there is the inevitable conflict with the Italian mob, including one biblical confrontation in which Brown, wielding his walking-stick dagger, cuts off the pony tail of a young mobster. Like Samson, the wiseguy no longer has any power. But this humiliation leads him to the cops and sets up an intriguing double-cross that ends in murder and betrayal.
Along the way, Brown also has a falling out with his boyhood friend and top associate, GeeMoney (Allen Payne), over—what else—a woman.
“This is soap opera shit,” Brown says in dismissing one confrontation over the hooker that both men want to bed. At another point, in a dispute over cash and drugs, he tells GeeMoney, “Sit your five-dollar ass down, before I make change.”
That’s what passes for pithy dialogue in what quickly becomes a heavy-handed tale of power and corruption.
Nick, the Italian cop, helps explain it all after acknowledging to Scotty that he, like Pookie, was once a cocaine addict.
“This whole drug shit,” he says, “it’s not a black thing. It’s not a white thing. It’s a death thing. Death doesn’t give a shit about color.”
HIT: Chris Rock’s performance as a strung-out coke addict is chilling and is perhaps the best piece of acting in the movie.
MISS: Ice-T’s performance, on the other hand, seems forced. He told an MTV interviewer after the movie was released that he hated police because he grew up around gang members. That could explain his reluctance to embrace the role.
REALITY CHECK: The story falls apart at a crucial point. Working for the police, Pookie secretly films the drug marketing in the apartment complex with a camera hidden in his belt-buckle. After his cover is blown, the cops say they have no case. Yet they have all the video from the hidden camera, more than enough evidence to bring charges against Brown’s top associates. In real life, authorities would certainly use that evidence to pressure one of those associates to “flip” and become a witness
PIVOTAL SCENE: At a New Year’s Eve party, Nino toasts the future. “The new American dream . . . life ’til death.” That fatalism helps explain the murder, treachery and deceit that follow.
BEST LINE: Just before their final confrontation, the unnamed Old Man from the apartment complex—one of the few civilians to stand up to Nino Brown and his crew—tells Brown, “Idolator, your soul is required in hell.”
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The aforementioned Old Man is played by veteran character actor Bill Cobbs, who has over 140 film and television credits dating back to 1974 when he was a man on the subway station platform in a scene from the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. He’s played a minister on The Sopranos, has appeared in dozens of other television series and has had parts in films as diverse as Ghosts of Mississippi, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, The Color of Money, The Cotton Club and The Brother from Another Planet.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The stuff of New Jack City is the stuff of a thousand exploitation films; it’s the familiar story of cops versus pushers, yet somehow, though the shape of the narrative and a lot of the details are commonplace, Van Peebles penetrates to the reality behind the clichés.”—Hal Hinson, Washington Post
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Early on, Pookie tries to rob Scotty, not realizing he is an undercover cop. This leads to a chase scene through the city streets, Pookie on his bike and Scotty on foot. The scene was originally written as a car chase, Van Peebles said in an interview, but he decided against that because it would have used up too much of the film’s budget. In fact, the bike chase works well and is much more realistic. From our perspective, there are only two car chases worth watching. One is in The French Connection and the other is in Bullitt. Everything else is derivative.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: At the top of the chart.
BODY COUNT: At least twenty-nine. As in many other movies of this genre, the shootouts are so chaotic, they make arriving at an accurate count nearly impossible.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”