Twenty-six years on from its original theatrical release and the highest grossing independent film of 1991, New Jack City gets a make-over on Blu-ray as part of Warner Home Video’s Platinum Collection. Alongside another contemporary release of that year, Boyz ‘N The Hood, it is an interesting reflection of diverse film-making of the time.
Mario Van Peebles both directs and co-stars in the film, which opens in 1986 in Harlem as drug kingpin Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his gang are planning to take control of the city with the then-new-to-streets drug crack cocaine. Meanwhile, an undercover team of cops, led by Stone (Peebles), plot the downfall of Brown - with help from semi-reformed crack addict Pookie (Chris Rock), who was wounded in an earlier sting by Scotty Appleton (Ice-T).
Brown’s philosophy in the late 80s is ‘You’ve got to rob to get rich in the Reagan era’ and is clearly an advocate of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana mandate (at one point, the climax of Scarface (1983) is glimpsed on a large screen in his home). He thinks nothing of dispensing with un-loyal followers, as is demonstrated in the opening sequence when he drops a man off a bridge.
In the meantime, Stone requests some ‘New Jack Cops to take down a New Jack Gangster’, which he gets with Appleton, who reluctantly works alongside fellow detective Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson). The net begins to tighten as best it can against Brown, who is determined to outwit one and all who challenge him….
In the context of the genre of the time, New Jack City sits nicely alongside the likes of the original 1987 Lethal Weapon and classic early Seagal thrillers like Nico (Above the Law) and Out for Justice. You do get a sense that the producers did want to make this for a broader audience whilst attempting to retain a comment on the drug issue. Peebles actually shows some style and efficiency as a director, with intense gun-fights and violence that demonstrate a more uncompromising edge to the work.
Performance-wise, Ice-T and Nelson are a good match, though Nelson does take a little bit of convincing at Peretti. It was a nice touch to cast him against type from the ‘Brat Pack’ roles he was – and still is – renowned for. However, his method of speech does leave him vulnerable, though perhaps this was a deliberate acting choice. Comedian Chris Rock is very good in the support role of Pookie and shows a deft part comic, part-serious touch which he showed to greater effect later on in Lethal Weapon 4.
Given the expanse and increase of street drugs and the evolution of the style of music on show in the clubs in the film, New Jack City has not dated like some of the cop thrillers of the time and encapsulates a world that is the tip of the iceberg. Whilst not as analytical about the debate on drugs like Soderbergh’s Traffic, there is much to think about and take from a still-enjoyable movie.
NEW JACK CITY (1991) / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: MARIO VAN PEEBLES / SCREENPLAY: THOMAS LEE WRIGHT, BARRY MICHAEL COOPER / STARRING: WESLEY SNIPES, ICE-T. ALLEN PAYNE, CHRIS ROCK, MARIO VAN PEEBLES / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (HMV EXCLUSIVE)