I have written before that you’ll always be in for a rough ride with a Quentin Tarantino film. It is a given that it will be violent and disturbing on some levels. As a filmmaker that’s his style – along with great dialogue. However, here’s one film that just as tough as anything Tarantino has done or will ever do and it even goes one step further in the violence and human degradation factor: “New Jack City.” It’s a crime film that never matches Quentin’s great dialogue and storytelling, but in some ways is much more powerful because it is realistic while Tarantino’s work is more like stories with great performances by actors. Although “New Jack City” is more than a generation old and the drugs are different today, it still speaks the word of the street and examines one of the most sinister parts of our society. “New Jack City” isn’t for the faint-of-heart just for its clinical physical violence, but also just as much for its emotional destruction as well. It’s a tour-de-force for Wesley Snipes and Ice-T isn’t far behind.
‘New Jack City’
(1991; 97 minutes; rated R; directed by Mario Van Peebles and starring Wesley Snipes, Ice-T and Allen Payne)
HE’S SOCIETY’S WORST NIGHTMARE
(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion, additional trivia and cleaned up some typos on March 4, 2016. I again expanded the review on March 31, 2020.)
In the most direct way, “New Jack City” is Wesley Snipes’ movie as he plays drug kingpin “Nino Brown.” He’s profane; he’s violent; he’s cruel; he distrusts his closest friends; and in the end the destruction in his wake cannot be solved by his fate. It’s a powerful role and one that you don’t hear much when such films are discussed and was virtually ignored when it came time to hand out awards.
“New Jack City” has so much great work by actors that it’s almost impossible to make sure you cover them all. After Snipes you’ve got solid if not quietly spectacular work from Ice-T (no hyphen in his name in the credits then), Bill Cobbs, Chris Rock and even one from former “Brat Pack-er” Judd Nelson. The bad is deeply bad in “New Jack City” and the good is sometimes nearly bad, but the morality play ends with an unexpected but symbolic twist of both plot and visuals.
It is almost unconscionable that this film didn’t even get nominated for a Golden Globe, much less an Oscar. It is filled with great work both in front of and behind the camera. Damn! At least Snipes earned a win best actor from the NAACP’s Image Awards and the movie was nominated for the Image’s outstanding motion picture honor. But, Wesley did win “Best Bad MF Award” from the All Def Movie Awards in 2016.
Now, back to my review …
In between the opening and closing credits you see how far down crime can drag society. “New Jack City” isn’t the flashy pastel colors in flashy hip surroundings populated with beautiful people in sunny South Florida that you found in the visually exciting and groundbreaking “Miami Vice” TV series. It is more like Al Pacino in “Scarface” nearly a decade earlier, but didn’t earn the three Globe nominations earned by “Scarface.”
“New Jack City” shows you a drab and gritty existence down on the meanest of urban streets with real people watching helplessly as their community continues to be torn apart. It isn’t a pretty story and, most unfortunately, not much has changed in the past nearly 30 years since the movie’s premiere.
Drugs, especially crack cocaine, are the foundation of bad here, but also is the lifestyle of the drug dealers – the excesses speak for themselves as pretty much the dream of most looking on at the pyrrhic scene fostered by the narcotics.
However, this film is not a philosophical statement other than to be a sledge hammer breaking an egg on a hot sidewalk. It is brutal and a simple treat to watch, no matter how profane and vile.
Here’s a look at part of the primary cast:
- Snipes is just as energetic and over-the-top here as he was in “Demolition Man” with Arnold Schwarzenegger (click here for my review), but this is true drama and not sci-fi action. Snipes begins to seethe as his character in every glance, turn of his head or his voice inflections. It is the role of a lifetime and Snipes never got the credit for it (not even an Oscar nod, but he did get best actor at the Image Awards). Just as Samuel L. Jackson was the personification of evil in Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (click here for my review), Snipes is one level better (worse?). He has also been in “Major League” (click here for my review), “White Men Can’t Jump” and the “Blade” franchise. He’s a very underrated actor.
- Running a close second to Snipes here is Ice-T (no hyphen in his name in the credits but one was on the movie poster). He’s “Det. Scotty Appleton,” who is the undercover cop assigned the mission to take down Snipes. Ice-T is cool most of the time, but he gets it into high gear (no pun intended) whenever the situation calls for it. He does an outstanding job here in a more emotional turn than physical one – although he does get into the violence, too, and is especially personal with it when he fights Snipes. Ice-T has also been in “Johnny Mneumonic” and I like him best and he’s more widely recognized as “Odafin ‘Fin’ Tutuola” on TV’s “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” He was also in the cult classic “Tank Girl” with Lori Petty.
- Although he doesn’t have the screen time, Cobbs is wonderful as “Old Man.” He’s the elderly resident of the community who continually berates Snipes as a tumor destroying humanity. Cobbs just gets better as his ongoing opposition to Snipes intensifies. As the symbolic avenging angel of good, Cobbs is the height of the climax of the film. He was also terrific as the cool jazz musician in Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do!” (click here for my review) as well as in “Demolition Man” with Snipes.
- I can easily say that I’d like to have seen more of Nelson’s character, “Det. Nick Peretti,” who is calm and collected, but too much on the edge. A Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Nelson does a solid job communicating his character with what little he has to work, but I’m not sure anything else could have been sacrificed in the film to expand the character. Of course, Nelson was a member of the “Brat Pack” in “The Breakfast Club” and “ Elmo’s Fire” and much later was a character on TV’s “Two and Half Men” before that sitcom went down the toilet with Charlie Sheen leaving and the astoundingly talentless Ashton Kutcher being promoted from the minor leagues. I also liked his work in a small role in the stoner gross-out flick “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”
- Another effort-in-a-career work that didn’t get the notice it deserved is by Chris Rock, a four-time Primetime Emmy nominee who gets away from his comedic roots by playing addict-turned-informer “Benny ‘Pookie’ Robinson.” Rock’s work here spans the addled, frenetic addict on the streets to getting clean and finally working with Ice-T and Nelson to go inside Snipes’ operation. The last part spells his doom, but Rock deserved at least a Golden Globe nomination for this one. He was also in “Grown Ups” and its sequel with Adam Sandler. All his nominations are for network comedy productions. No one, least of all myself, needs to tell you that he’s funny, so watch this movie and find out how well he can act.
- The most underrated actor here is Allen Payne, who plays “Gerald ‘Gee Money’ Wells,” and he is Snipes’ best friend from boyhood and co-founder of the “CMB” (Cash Money Brothers) gang. Payne does every bit as good work here any anyone and, in some cases, such as the swing from a casual look at murder to business and finally into the depths of drug abuse. Great work here, Allen. He was also in “The Perfect Storm” and “The Tuskegee Airmen” before being the headliner on Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne” for seven seasons and then just three episodes in a follow-up series called “The Paynes.”
- Mario Van Peebles is both actor and director here (“New Jack City” is his first in the director’s chair for a feature film) and does a solid job, but I guess that it’s difficult to make your character stand out if you’re working behind the camera. He was also in TV’s “A. Law” and has directed a string of TV efforts. He directed and was Stokely Carmichael in “Panther” (no, not the superhero flick) and had the complete misfortune to agree to be part of one of the worst films ever from Hollywood: “Jaws: The Revenge” (click here for my look at that stinker).
I just don’t want this review to go on-and-on because of all the other cast members who do their part to make this as good as it is, so I’ll just tell you to expend the effort to find it, as it does make the rounds on the cable grid.
“New Jack City” was the 26th ranked film at the box office in 1991 with $47.6 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was a winner for investors, too, as it was made on an $8 million budget, according to Wiki. Another notable that year was “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and it came in at No. 1 with $204.8 million. Here are other films from that year I’ve reviewed:
- “Dutch” (unexpectedly good) – click here for my review
- “Father of the Bride” (really good) – click here for my review
- “Necessary Roughness” (solid) – click here for my review
- “Point Break – 1991” (solid) – click here for my review
- “The Silence of the Lambs” (outstanding) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- “New Jack City” is the film debut of Vanessa Williams as she plays “Keisha,” who is one of the CMB gang’s members. Williams was also on TV’s “Melrose Place.”
- Directly from com: “Ice-T almost refused the role as Scottie because he felt that if the film was a failure it would negatively affect his rap career. During an interview with MTV’s Kurt Loder back in 1990, Ice-T stated to Loder that he hated the police due to his past connection with the Crips. However, not only was the film a hit, but it also proved to give him his huge break as an actor.”
- The story is loosely based on a Detroit gang called “The Chambers Brothers” and was the highest-grossing independent film of 1991.
- It wouldn’t happen today, but Ice-T reportedly said in an interview that he was paid $26,000 to be in the film.
- Another cool one from com: “Mario Van Peebles had formed a friendship with Clint Eastwood when the pair made Heartbreak Ridge (1986). When Van Peebles took the ‘New Jack City’ screenplay to Warner Bros., the studio was interested in the material, but weren’t keen on having an unknown as the director/lead actor. Eastwood personally vouched for Van Peebles and told the Warner brass to ‘give the kid a shot.’ The success of the film launched Van Peebles’s directing career.”
- Blair Underwood, who was on “L.A. Law,” auditioned for the role given to Snipes. I respect Underwood and have enjoyed his work, but Snipes had the perfect edge in projecting “Nino Brown.” Underwood could never have reached Snipes’ level, in my opinion.
- Finally and directly from com: “On Inside the Actors Studio (1994), Chris Rock claimed that for several years following his acclaimed performance as a crack addict, drug dealers would approach him and put crack and cocaine in his pocket; joking that ‘they thought it was a documentary.’ He stated that, although he knew people who used crack at the time, he never did and, in his 1997 memoir ‘Rock This’ had only smoked marijuana twice.”
- Click here for IMDb.com’s trivia page about the movie …
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