New Jack City (1991)
August 22, 2022 11:46 AM - Subscribe

A crime lord ascends to power and becomes megalomaniacal while a maverick police detective vows to stop him.

Drug tycoon Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his minions, known collectively as the Cash Money Brothers, have rapidly risen to the top of the New York City narcotics trade. Under Nino's heartless leadership, the drug operation has grown into a multimillion-dollar empire. Scotty (Ice-T) and Nick (Judd Nelson), two police officers who know their way around the streets of Harlem, aim to bring Nino and his cohorts down. To do so, though, they'll have to play by Nino's rules and go undercover.

Ian Nathan: A brash, unconvincing crime thriller that can claim to have launched the hip-hop styled movie, and given Wesley Snipes a chance to be outrageous. It looks hackneyed and feels overwrought in hindsight, but at the time its kinetic edits, blurring like some drug trip, and violent immediacy were groundbreaking. Van Peebles, who would drift to the sidelines of cinema when he shouldn’t have, was intent on transforming the black exploitation movie into an intense exposure of late ‘80s Harlem drug culture. But his approach was too of-the-moment and self-satisfied to be nuanced or telling, the boombox vernacular, thick with colloquial guttertalk, feels forced and showy rather than truthful.

Snipes, however, is having a ball. His Nino is is living the black, street-crime version of the yuppie dream. He’s Don Corleone mixed with Richard Pryor, dressed in immaculate blue suits, and spouting mock philosophies on brotherhood. His foes in this hectic cops and robbers vibe, Scotty and Nick (played with that lazy snicker by Ice-T (good choice) and lonely Caucasian muddle by Judd Nelson), spar and break the rules – as we’ve got a new kind of mobster, so we have a new breed of cop, sour and naked of ideals.

Janet Maslin
: The film presses its luck when it describes Nino as being "in the tradition of Joe Kennedy," or lets him attribute his business ethics to Reaganomics and the American way. It works best when simply letting Nino revel in his megalomania, which is effectively heightened by a pious streak; he actually weeps when killing a friend in one climactic scene. The film's flamboyant portrait of Nino may be stereotypical, but Mr. Snipes makes it chilling.

Mr. Van Peebles's direction can be overly ambitious, attempting odd angles and arty compositions, but for the most part it is efficient and unobtrusive. The film's use of once-imposing, now-crumbling New York architecture is particularly effective in underscoring the story with an air of widespread urban decay. These settings, strikingly photographed by Francis Kenny, are often quietly surprising.

Desson Howe: The excitement factor in "New Jack City," especially at the beginning, is inescapable. A tough off-screen voice announces, "You are now about to witness the stren'th of street knowledge." A pounding rap tune fills your head. You swoop vicariously into New York on the pinion of an airborne camera . . . .

From this moment on, Mario Van Peebles's drugland feature, a relentless, hold-on-to-your-hat experience, rarely lets up. Essentially a gangster rise-and-fall movie wrapped up in gold chains, it's about a lethally enterprising street gang led by Wesley Snipes that builds a brutal, multimillion-dollar crack empire in Harlem. The gang's ascent is meteoric. Snipes's henchmen (including Allen Payne and a stuttering Bill Nun) convert a huge apartment building into a secret narcotic fortress. Their power becomes so awesome, their methods so brutal, that undercover cops Ice-T and Judd Nelson, with assistance from supervisor Van Peebles, lead an unofficial special team to take appropriately powerful, state-of-the-art measures.

No one can accuse Van Peebles of originality, or subtlety. Not in a movie in which Snipes's female minions, their breasts bared, prepare crack in a sweat-shop room; nor in a movie in which Snipes -- with Al Pacino's "Scarface" projected on a home screen behind him -- yells "The world is mine! All mine!"

"Scarface," which figures big in this film, is but one of the familiar sources Van Peebles reaches for. He extracts from '30s gangster pictures, the '70s blaxploitation era and more recent offerings such as "The Godfather" and "The Untouchables." But he creates a powerful, straight-shooting urgency that's very much his own. Van Peebles, who has directed music videos as well as episodes of "21 Jump Street" and "Wise Guy," employs such speedy, video-age direction, the movie whizzes by too quickly to be caught in cliches.

Politically, "Jack's" colors are unmistakable. Events in this movie begin in 1986, the conservative movement's profit-ueber-alles era. At the top are the Trumps and underneath, in the Hades of America, in the New Jack Cities, there's only one way to become big. "You gotta rob in the Reagan era to get rich," Snipes tells his gang.

posted by Carillon (4 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What an interesting movie. It's the origin of the phrase 'cancel' apparently and also the meme of Snipes holding the gun and crying, so for something that is pretty under the radar, it punches above it's weight in the culture today.

As a movie I feel like it's 3 or 4 different movies crashing into each other. It's a classic crime thriller, but also a cop movie, but also a moralistic tale on the rise of crack in NYC, but also a story about the rise and fall of a low-level crook. In most other movies the raid on the apartment fortress would be the finale! And here it's only half way through.

I thought it was most effective when chronicling the rise of the CMB and the ways in which the organization grows and changes. Mirrored shots of their original 'board room' in the back of a club with concrete and folding chairs, changes to an opulent palatial room with fancy water bottles on the tables and nice chairs. Great shots too of their decked out movie room and Snipes in front of Scarface, it's not subtle, but it's effective.

I think it's weakest when dealing with the cops. Ice-T is fine, but Judd Nelson is a real millstone around the movies neck. It's also what I like least is the cutsey just-so stories that come out. Oh he also dealt with drugs too so he's now on the same side of Ice-T, oh that school teacher Snipes killed was actually Ice-T's mom. That's when the obviousness wasn't effective for me.

All in all though a movie I'm happy I saw, and it had a lot going on and a lot to say. It presages movies of the 90's in that the directing and camera work feel familiar, and again, Snipes kills it in his performance.
posted by Carillon at 11:57 AM on August 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Judd Nelson is a millstone around the neck of most every movie he's in... (sorry Judd)

I was in high school when this came out but never saw it. Will have to give it some time soon!
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:06 PM on August 22, 2022

I can't hear anymore. And I never saw "New Jack City" when I could. What is the soundtrack like? New Jack Swing? Straight Hip Hop? Something else? Give me an example of another movie that I might know that's soundtrack is similar in style and tone. Thanks!
posted by Stuka at 12:14 PM on August 22, 2022

I don't know another movie that might be similar, but I looked up the soundtrack and you can get some idea of what it's like through the track listing. According to wikipedia:

The soundtrack consists of eleven original songs, most of which were performed by chart-topping R&B and hip-hop artists of the time. The music is heavily influenced by the New Jack Swing genre of R&B. Prominent artists and producers of this sound contributed to the soundtrack, including Guy with Teddy Riley, Keith Sweat, Color Me Badd, and Johnny Gill; Al B. Sure! produced the track "Get It Together (Black Is a Force)," performed by F.S. Effect.

This review might also help give you the context too!
posted by Carillon at 12:52 PM on August 22, 2022

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