Starring: Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Allen Payne, Judd Nelson, Mario Van Peebles, Chris Rock, Russell Wong
Rated R for Strong Violence, Drug Content, Sensuality and Language
I'm sure there are many who wonder why we, as a society, are so obsessed with gangster films. Sure, some of them ("The Godfather," "Goodfellas," "Scarface") have been amazing films in and of themselves, but movies about the mob or crime bosses in general have dotted the landscape for as long as there have been movies. Perhaps it is because of our fascination with the lurid, or being able to vicariously live a life without morality and the law.
It's an interesting question, but such philosophical discourse is best-suited for a more deserving film. Just as there are good comedies ("Ted") and bad ones ("The Royal Tenenbaums"), there are good crime films ("Hoodlum") and bad ones ("Belly"). Take a look at the rating and guess which category "New Jack City" falls under.
Nino Brown (Snipes) is a low-level drug dealer with an ambitious business plan. He knows how to get his hands on a lot of crack cocaine, and by taking control of an entire city project, he can make big money and be essentially untouchable. The plot works and he makes millions. Naturally, drug dealing and murder make him enemies of law enforcement, and four cops, Scotty (Ice-T), Nick Peretti (Nelson), Park (Wong) and Stone (Van Peebles), set out to take him down.
This could have been a glorious crime epic, except that the script is hopelessly generic, the direction is pedestrian and the acting is lackluster (save for Snipes, who is always fun to watch). Honestly, this feels like a direct-to-video movie, except that it was released in theaters to great reviews (including Roger Ebert, who gave it a 3.5/4 for some reason...then again, he gave "Shane" a 4/4) and became the biggest grossing independent film of 1991.
Before he went to prison for tax evasion, Wesley Snipes was one of the biggest action stars in Hollywood, especially for headlining the "Blade" franchise. But as can be seen in a number of his other roles, he's an effective actor ("U.S. Marshals"). As Nino, he's bad to the bone, an intelligent psychopath who grows more vicious as he gains more money and power. It's a decent, but not spectacular performance. It's also the film's lone bright spot, since nothing else can be mentioned positively.
His co-stars are less than impressive. Ice-T's casting is laced with irony. The rapper turned actor was a part of the hip hop group "Public Enemy," whose song "Cop Killer" was so controversial that conservatives (including Charlton Heston) got Warner Bros. to drop the group from the label. He nearly turned down the role of the Scotty because he feared that playing a cop would ruin his career. In another ironic twist, it did the opposite and jump-started it, which culminated in him playing Odafin Tutuola on the hit show "Law and Order: SVU" (a personal favorite of mine, by the way). Everyone else does amazing jobs of blending into the background except for Vanessa Williams (playing Keisha, one of Nino's cohorts...so nice to see that not every villain has to be a muscle-bound behemoth), who is surprisingly villainous, but unfortunately she doesn't have a lot of screen time.
The film doesn't get off to a good start and keeps going downhill. The story is boring and there isn't a single character worth caring about; Ice-T and Snipes show flashes of humanity, but they're helpless in this sea of mediocrity. It would be bad enough that there isn't a likable character in the film, but no one is sufficiently developed or interesting. Without that, the movie is sunk.
Van Peebles has a decent grasp of what it takes to create action scenes. He's no John Woo or even Paul Verhoeven, but they're moderately entertaining. That's actually the problem: they're filled with impressive stunts and pyrotechnics, and as such, belong in a different movie. They're over-the-top and silly, which is fine for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but fatal for a movie that wants to be taken seriously.
Finally, there's the film's utter lack of intelligence. The film gets dumber and dumber as the film goes on. The climactic fight is absurd even by Schwarzenegger-ish standards, and the ending will make anyone roll their eyes. Van Peebles has an ax to grind, and while his points are valid, he would have served his thesis better by creating a movie with real characters and real story. At least it's not as bad as "Strangeland," another abysmal failure with high moralistic expectations. But it did make me think of that film, and that's bad enough.