Sometimes, I just don't get it. I mean, "New Jack City" from 1991 is a good movie, but good enough for a two-disc Special Edition set? When Warner Bros. at this writing still hadn't released "The African Queen" on DVD? Oh, well. We get what we get, and there's no questioning that "New Jack City" is worth the attention.
One can't help noticing (and the director, Mario Van Peebles, freely admits) that "New Jack City" is trying its best to emulate two successful gangster films of a few years earlier, "The Untouchables" and "Scarface." If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then "NJC" is flattering, indeed. It doesn't succeed in equaling its two distinguished predecessors, but that surely isn't for lack of trying. Moreover, it's successful in its own right, creating a convincing, tough-minded portrait of drug lords and undercover cops.
The idea was to produce a crusading antidrug film, the antidrug theme hammered home by a written afterword announcing that although the film is fiction, the drug lords in it "exist in every major city in America." The "however" is that the movie sometimes forgets its message in the onslaught of high-octane action and violence. While it never for a minute glamorizes drugs, drug taking, or drug selling, it does tend occasionally to forget its purpose and revel a bit much in the exploits and operations of the drug community. But when these digressions do occur, the movie soon finds its direction again.
What works best in the film is the energy of its stars, particularly Ice T as the undercover cop, Scotty Appleton, and Wesley Snipes as the drug kingpin, Nino Brown. Although Snipes gets top billing, it's a toss-up which actor you'll remember the most after watching the film. Ice T's Appleton is a street tough turned New York City police detective, a rogue with whom nobody wants to work. Yet he's not just the Dirty Harry of typical crime films; he's genuinely troubled, unsettled, and searching for something he finds undefinable. Well, this is the film that defined the actor's Hollywood career, and he's probably never equalled it since.
Snipes as the drug lord is also on strong ground, and his characterization of Nino is more complex than you'd expect. On the one hand, Nino is sweet and charismatic; he sees himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, taking on the rich establishment, providing people with what they want, and getting fabulously wealthy in the process. He takes over an apartment building for his center of illegal operations, then opens up a soup kitchen to feed the needy residents, giving them products and appliances to win their confidence. On the other hand, Nino is a killer, a vicious murderer who will stop at nothing to make his fortune. He sees his life as a shining example of the American Dream, the poor boy taking advantage of the opportunities the country offers him; and if he has to do in a few people to make that dream come true, so be it. His heroes are Al Pacino's Tony Montana from "Scarface," a movie he plays over and over in his palatial mansion, as well as Warner Bros. gangster stars George Raft and Jimmy Cagney.
Things that also work well in the film are its integration of hip-hop music into the soundtrack, something we have come to take for granted a decade-and-a-half later, as well as its sometimes surprising changes of pace. The first chase sequence early on in the movie, for instance, is not done in speeding cars crashing around corners but on foot and on bicycle through a park.
What doesn't work so well is the movie trying to divide its time almost equally between the cops and the gangsters and never fully coming to terms with either group of people. I mentioned this movie's resemblance to "The Untouchables"; in "NJC," too, we get an incorruptible unit of undercover investigators brought together to bring down Nino and his gang. Stone (played by the movie's director, Mario Van Peebles) is the head of an independent police task force dedicated to cleaning up drugs in the city, and he requests that Scotty be brought in and teamed up with another hothead, Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson, with not nearly so much screen time as we'd like). Scotty and Nick hate each other from the outset, but there's no questioning their dedication to crime fighting. The team also picks up a junkie-turned-informant, Pookie, played by Chris Rock in possibly the most serious and convincing role of his career. Nevertheless, none of them are given enough screen time to flesh out their roles or make us care too much about them.
On the opposite side of the fence, Nino has also surrounded himself with friends and "family." Gee Money (Allen Payne) is his business partner in crime as well as his oldest and best friend. Then there are girlfriends and bodyguards and lawyers all over the place who enter the picture with their own stories. But unlike "The Untouchables" where the tale of the treasury agents was foremost, or "Scarface" where the account of the gangster's rise to power was our principal interest, "New Jack City" attempts to cover both camps, doing so more superficially. In addition, we get a subplot involving Nino's conflicts with the Italian Mafia, another diversion that might have been explored further or left out entirely. The film is only about 100 minutes long, and there is only so much it can accomplish in that time.
Disloyalty, greed, and the drugs themselves finally do in Nino and his gang, which is the way we would expect things to turn out, so there are no surprises there. "New Jack City" tells a purely conventional story, but it unfolds in unique and innovative ways, with particularly good turns from its cast, all of which make it a worthwhile watch.
The picture quality looks good thanks to WB's high-bit rate, anamorphic transfer. The image is a tad soft in focus overall, but its colors are exceptionally natural, the hues varying to some degree in brightness but not in realistic texture. There is very little noticeable grain, very few shimmering lines, and no digital artifacts that I could see. The movie may be dark and violent, but the visuals are a pleasure to the eye.
Since most of the movie is comprised of music and dialogue, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction has to be clear and linear. Fortunately, it's up to the challenge. A robust bass and a clean midrange serve the hip-hop tunes well; and when the music settles down long enough for the dialogue to shine through, it, too, is clean and well balanced. Understand, most of the music is necessarily loud and blaring, so be prepared to modify the volume from time to time. For action sequences, like gunfights and helicopter flyovers, the sonics are properly dynamic.
I liked the extras in this two-disc set almost as much as I liked the movie. Disc one contains the widescreen presentation of the film, with English and French spoken languages and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. It also contains thirty-four scene selections (but no chapter insert) and a widescreen theatrical trailer. However, the main attraction is an audio commentary with the director and costar Mario Van Peebles. It's among the best such commentaries you'll find, thanks to Peeble's appealing speaking voice and his intelligent analysis. I suppose you could say this is a little unfair to other directors who may not be trained, professional actors as well as directors, but that's their misfortune. This is one commentary to enjoy.
Disc two contains three, new, documentary featurettes, each of them a continuation of the others. The first, "The Road to New Jack City," is a twenty-eight-minute, behind-the-scenes affair with the actors and filmmakers today looking back on the movie they made together. It's consistently informative and entertaining. The second, "NJC: A Hip-Hop Classic," is twenty more minutes on the themes and impact of the film. The third item, "Harlem World: A Walk Inside," is a ten-minute tour of the inner city with Peebles, a group of children, and Christopher Moore, a historian with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Finally, there are three music videos that appropriately round out the affair: "New Jack Hustler" by Ice T, "I'm Dreamin'" by Christopher Williams, and "I Wanna Sex You Up" by Color Me Badd.
The two discs come in a slim-line keep case, further enclosed in a fancy, embossed, metal-foil slipcover. What I continue to wonder is how studios can justify the cost of slipcovers yet not provide chapter inserts. My good friend and colleague Eddie Feng once told me the studios liked slipcovers to help guard against in-store thefts. Maybe. Another mystery of life.
"New Jack City" may be a bit too ambitious for its own good, trying to cover all its bases by devoting equivalent time both to the good guys and the bad guys. Despite this seeming handicap, Peebles and his crew pull it off reasonably successfully, thanks largely as I said before to the dynamism of the stars, the well-integrated musical tracks, and the extensive NYC location shooting. They turn a pedestrian script into an above-average gangster thriller.