Friday, November 26, 2010

New Jack City (1991)

by Brian “D.A.R.E.” Roe

Oh crack, remember when you were the scourge of a people? Do you remember when everybody from Keith Haring to Nancy Reagan warned us about how you were “wack” and we should “just say no”? Do you remember those halcyon days of yore when you ruined thousands of lives, entire communities, not to mention a few generations of people in ways that alcohol, marijuana, or heroin never had the ability to? Yeah crack, back in the eighties, you were the big bad motherfucker when it came to messing up people all the while convincing them that they could fly or some such shit.

Then that upstart crystal meth came around and stole your thunder faster than you could say “suck a glass dick.”

But in the early 1990s, crack still had some mojo left and was the centerpiece of New Jack City, a film directed by Mario Van Peebles and starring proto-stars Wesley Snipes, Ice T, and Chris Rock. Oh, and Judd Nelson’s in it, but he’s irrelevant.

Now when your dad’s the guy who created Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, you’ve got some history to live up to. And instead of copying his dad’s formula of constantly talking about his dick, Mario goes with a loftier version of black masculinity by casting himself as the young upstart detective who really gets the ball rolling here. Little Van Peebles does a decent job of putting things on screen, but the overall cinematography looks a bit like a live-action role-playing group. And coupled with a few non-actors trying to act, this can cause some pretty bland scenes and odd interactions.

The first fly-by shot shows us the New York that we’ve grown to love as a setting for crime films. Who cares if you shoot all the scenes in Toronto, as long as you start with a long, loving helicopter shot of NYC, we’re pretty much onboard. As we fly along, news radio gives a concise overview of the economic failures of the Reagan era as the chopper keeps on going over the main areas of Manhattan. Then a white guy gets thrown off of a bridge. I mention this scene and the fellow’s race for two reasons. One, the actual stunt is pretty impressive and elicits a good sense of vertigo. And two, white people are in this movie in the same way they often are in 1970s blaxploitation movies, as bad guys and throw-away characters.

The next series of shots are far more disturbing. With a title that just reads “The City 1986,” we begin a different kind of fly-over, one that shows the absolute desolation and destruction of the slums of New York. My first thought upon seeing this was that this couldn’t be a place in The U.S. Upon realizing that it was, my second thought was that it shouldn’t be, no one should ever have to live in these places. And amongst the burned out cars and rotten buildings, lives are taking place. Probably lives that reek of urine and Night Train, but lives nonetheless.

So MVP (ooh nice initials) already has me somewhat on his side. I see that people shouldn’t live in a hell like these ghettoes. Even if the people acting like bums fighting over bottles of booze are actually um, actors, it doesn’t excuse the fact that they could find places that looked this destroyed to film.

Okay enough social crap. On to entertainment!

Ice-T, as Detective Scotty Appleton, looks so damned young in this. Not the scrawny, ditch-weed young of Colors, but trim and badass young. The problem is he’s still not an actor. Yes, he can “front” like any rap performer, but that’s pretty much what he does for any scene. Head twist, look down nose, puff out chest. This serves him well from threatening people to hanging out in a nightclub. One thing that you can say about Ice T is that he’s consistent. And Chris Rock looks like he’s twelve. Which is probably not far off.

The real star of this show, in more ways than one, is Wesley motherfuckin’ Snipes. Yes, the poor sap forgot to pay taxes, so the Man’s about to put him in the joint, but back in the early nineties, Snipes was a powerhouse with the character of Nino Brown, small-time drug lord about to hit the big time. He conveys a powerful ego that makes the other actors around him seem better. When all the other characters come across as comic book deep caricatures, Snipes has the role down. His physical movements alone usually convey what he needs to say. Yes, I’m fucking impressed with the guy. After sitting through the Blade movies, I had forgotten that Snipes was once a gifted young actor. Who forgot to pay his taxes.

There are so many types of movie that Van Peebles tried to make with New Jack City that it’s easy to get lost. Social documentary, call to action, buddy cop, legal, drama, hell, frickin’ musical theater. Sometimes it comes across as a cameo-heavy talent show and not a concise, driving movie. It is cool to see so many recognizable faces like Fab Five Freddy, Flava Flav, etc, but it still feels like Van Peebles was trying to get all his cool friends to be in his movie to up the salability. But seriously Mario, make your movie and quit sticking little music videos everywhere. And if you want chicks to make goo-goo eyes at Keith Sweat, at least have them be actors who can really make the goo-goo eyes.

The script for NJC was written by a middle aged white guy. Again with the race thing but only a middle aged white guy would throw in lines like: “Some George Raft, James Cagney type'a shit.” I’m not saying that people of color might not embrace 50 year old films, but this line reads like somebody’s dad trying to be “down” and it name checks a couple of film geek darlings. And it just comes across as stilted even when delivered by a talented young actor named Wesley Snipes.

The main storyline involves Nino Brown and the Cash Money Brothers basically creating The Best Little Crackhouse in NYC except it ain’t so little. Brown and the CMB take over an entire city apartment block and run it like a private island in New York’s vast, overcrowded sprawl. Van Peebles, playing Detective Stone, recruits loose cannons Scotty Appleton and Nick Peretti (played by Judd Nelson at his absolute most forgettable) to get some evidence or something and the other cops won’t arrest Brown and some other stuff happens. It’s best not to think too much about the idea of an entire city block being turned into a giant crackhouse. Although I’m sure somebody will tell me it was based on a real place. Great. I’m glad.

Besides the human actors and the City of New York, New Jack City has another very important character. This movie stars the fucking Nineteen-Eighties. Back when fat gold chains were how you showed, Kanga caps perched atop nigh every head, and fat laced Adidas cradled every foot. Suits could be cobalt blue, damnit, a young man’s hair could be cut into a tall-assed box cut with stripes on the side, and urban gangsters still had not started the fucking ludicrous habit of holding their fucking pistols sideways like a bunch of idiotic fuckwits! (Sorry, I hate that crap.)

I’ll say a good thing and a bad thing about New Jack City, and then I get a RAM chip.

Good Thing: Unlike a lot of white-guy produced and directed blaxploitation, the mostly African-American cast don’t come across as idiots (for the most part) and the whole enterprise is well produced and shot for a film from the early nineties. Although it takes place in the eighties, it doesn’t have the neon-stink of films shot at that time. So good basics if still a little stilted (Chris Rock’s “clean and sober” montage, and Chris Rock’s death scene are particularly wooden).

Bad Thing: Like most mafia-centric crime films it makes selling drugs, killing people, and being an ego-driven cockhead seem like a really good idea. Nino Brown gets what he wants when he wants it and he still has absolute devotion from his underlings. The detectives bicker at each other like old married people and can’t get any cooperation from the rest of the police. The message is clear: doing things legally is for chumps; only law-breaking, crack-selling, community-destroying assholes get to fuck the hot chicks.

So the bad thing here really sucks any enjoyment out of this film. I’m pretty sure that New Jack City alone created gangsta rap and all the other permutations of the vile worship of criminals. And yes, like any good morality play, the bad guy gets it in the end. But not before he lives a richer and more interesting life, however brief, than the rest of us can ever imagine. The only time that Ice-T gets any tail in this movie is when he goes undercover with Nino’s gang. And although he talks a good talk about saving his community and such, he seems totally all right with lounging around Nino’s crib, drinking Courvoisier, and nailing Asian whores, all the while keeping his moral high ground hard-on that he’s doing the right thing.

New Jack City is pure comic-book simple fantasy. Especially if you fantasize about being a despicable, drug-dealing, community-destroying, egomaniacal shithead.