Warner Bros. // 1991 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // September 13th, 2005
Where survival depends on friends, trust, and power...an organized crime family out to run this city is up against cops who know its streets.
Mario Van Peebles's 1991 hip-hop gangster classic New Jack City gets the two-disc special edition treatment, courtesy of Warner Bros. But are the extras worth the upgrade?
The City. 1986. A two-bit hustler named Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes, White Men Can't Jump, Blade) and his gang, the Cash Money Brothers, is looking for new way to take control of the City. They find it in a new street drug known as "crack."
Cut to five years later. Nino and the CMB are the most powerful drug lords in the city, taking over an entire hotel and creating the first "crack house," making nice with corrupt city officials, and killing anyone who threatens to stand in their way. It just so happens that standing in their way are detectives Scotty Appleton (Ice-T, Ricochet) and Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson, Fandango) -- two cops hell bent on bringing down the CMB at any cost. With the help of a reformed addict named Pookie (Chris Rock, Dogma), Appleton and Peretti don't just go after Nino Brown -- they declare war on him.
New Jack City is a great gangster movie and a great action movie that somehow never manages to be a Great Movie. What it lacks in skill and experience it more than makes up for in energy and sheer audacity -- it pulses and grooves, burns and explodes; in its own way, it's a kind of modern classic. The movie is nothing but rough edges, but it's those rough edges that make it work.
What's best about the film is that it never forgets that it is one; that is, it functions first and foremost as a gangster-action movie before getting bogged down in self-serious "messaging." Yes, the messages are there -- crime doesn't pay, drugs kill -- but they come out of the filmic conventions that New Jack City embraces. We get all of the cop movie clichés: the incompatible cops forced to be partners; the police captain screaming about pressure from the mayor; bad-guy-speechifying; climactic shoot-outs -- they're all present and accounted for. That's not to say the movie isn't heavy handed in its own Importance at times (it is; especially some of the Chris Rock material -- dig that crack pipe/American flag shot), just that it doesn't necessarily seek to be more than it is: a hip, funky, violent and super-charged gangster flick with some Big Ideas.
As much as it sticks to convention, though, the film does try to defy expectations -- it may not break tradition altogether, but it certainly bends it. Characters are killed off that wouldn't in a traditional cops-n-robbers flick; fates are determined by characters we don't suspect. Even the structure of the movie is rare -- it belongs as much to the cops as it does to the robbers. In that way, New Jack City has more in common with Michael Mann's Heat than the standard cop or gangster movie; both sides of the law are given equal time and equal treatment -- though not necessarily equal sympathy. That Wesley Snipes comes off as the most memorable character is more a result of his magnetic performance than any concessions made by the screenplay or director; this is truly a star-making role, and it's easy to see how New Jack City turned Snipes into a household name. On the flip side of the narrative is rapper-turned-actor Ice-T in his first film role; while he tends to struggle with some of the heavier drama (not entirely his fault, as his Batman- like "origin" feels forced and arbitrary), he has a physicality, presence, and authenticity that cannot be denied -- the performance totally works. Others must have concurred, as T now makes his living playing a cop every week on TV's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Credit director and co-star Mario Van Peebles for infusing New Jack City with the energy and edge that sets it apart from the other entries in the genre, combining elements of standard actioners, blaxploitation, gangster melodrama, MTV, and even Greek tragedy into a new kind of pastiche. We've seen all these elements before, but not necessarily in the same film -- it manages to be both classical and cutting-edge at the same time. Van Peebles doesn't necessarily come by this easily. The movie takes time to work itself out. He seems to be trying too hard as the movie starts -- flashy camera angles, rapid-fire editing, and frenetic rhythms -- but the abuse of style doesn't last. As it progresses, the film finds its footing and Van Peebles grows more mature, competent and confident; by the end of New Jack City, we've seen Mario Van Peebles find himself as a director.
Warner Brothers' new 2-disc Special Edition of New Jack City is certainly an improvement over their original bare-bones release, though just how much of an improvement remains debatable. Both sound and picture quality are extremely solid; the film, presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, looks sharp and clear and pretty much free of noticeable flaws or debris. The 5.1 audio track does an impressive job of balancing the movie's dialogue with its action sound effects (gunfire and explosions) and bass-heavy hip-hop soundtrack, never really giving too much emphasis to one over the other.
But it's the extras included on the Special Edition that might warrant an upgrade for fans of the film, and they're (sadly) nothing too special. On the first disc is a commentary track by director Mario Van Peebles; he talks a bit about the production and its history, but spends too much time describing what's happening on screen. What's worse is that his commentary tends to repeat a lot of the same thoughts and information included on the documentary (found on the second disc) -- there's too much overlap, and the documentary handles the material more concisely. That documentary, called "The Road to New Jack City" and running about thirty minutes, is the best extra feature included in this new edition of the movie; it cuts between clips of the film and contemporary interviews with many of the key participants. Not surprisingly, there are only positive things to be said about the movie, but it's still fun to see some major stars reflect back on the movie that more or less launched them. By the second half of the piece, Van Peebles pretty much takes over as it turns into a tour of the locations where the film was shot; his energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and his anecdotes are far more entertaining in this forum than when they're repeated on the commentary.
Two other short featurettes are included on the second disc. The first, called NJC: A Hip-Hop Classic, is utter fluff that gathers singers, rappers, and industry types to praise the film and its impact on hip-hop and urban culture. All it's designed to do is reinforce the movie's credibility, but feels hollow even if it succeeds -- there's little there that enhances one's enjoyment of the film. The other featurette is a better (if only marginally) enhancement: a brief guided tour of the real-life city that inspired New Jack City. The only other extras are a few music videos from the movie soundtrack, providing an unintentionally hilarious time capsule of the early 1990s and showcasing a kind of slick softness that New Jack City was clearly trying to avoid.
New Jack City, while very much of its time back in 1991, somehow still holds up today. Despite some disappointing extras on this recent release (the only thing that might be more disappointing is the fact that a whole second disc has been devoted to them), it's a title worth investing in -- the movie alone is worth it. If you haven't already picked up New Jack City, this is certainly the version you'll want to get; if it's already a part of your collection, there's no real rush to get your hands on the Special Edition. There's nothing terribly "special" about it.
Am I my brother's keeper?
YES, I AM!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director/Co-Star Mario Van Peebles
* The Road to New Jack City -- Retrospective Featurette
* NJC: A Hip-Hop Classic -- Featurette
* Harlem World: A Walk Inside -- Featurette
* "New Jack Hustler" Ice-T Music Video
* "I'm Dreamin" Christopher Williams Music Video
* "I Wanna Sex You Up" Color Me Badd Music Video
* Theatrical Trailer