Story of a promising high school basketball star and his relationships with two brothers, one a drug dealer and the other a former basketball star fallen on hard times and now employed as a security guard.
The gangster Nino has a gang who call themselves Cash Money Brothers. They get into the crack business and not before long they make a million dollars every week. A cop, Scotty, is after them. He tries to get into the gang by letting an ex-drug addict infiltrate the gang, but the attempt fails miserably. The only thing that remains is that Scotty himself becomes a drug pusher.Written by
Boom mic shadow on Scotty's hat on the beach. See more »
I tried to kick... but that shit just be callin' me man, it be callin' me, man... I just got to go to it!
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German VHS & first DVD releases were edited for violence in two scenes (Nino kills a cop by cutting his throat/Scotty beats Nino at the end of the film), probably to secure a "Not under 16" rating. On TV the film was broadcast uncut. On the 2006 Special Edition DVD the film was released uncut. See more »
Coulda been better, but that's hindsight talking...
To its credit, New Jack City remains an obligatory stop on the tour of gangster/drug-lord epics. If I were a sociologist or an historian charting the history of 20th century American crime through its cinema, I would showcase New Jack along with Scarface as the best example of both the situation and attitudes towards it during the 1980's in the Eastern United States.
Okay, the story is heavily borrowed from Scarface, consciously. Several minutes of film are used to let us know this, showing the drug baron and his entourage enjoying an evening with the climax shootout of DePalma's contribution to the same canon showing. The story is familiar: ambitious criminal becomes rich and powerful thanks to America's 1980's appetite for cocaine, in this case crack cocaine sold to the inner city rather than the powder cocaine provided for the upper crust, engages in brutal wars with rivals for market share, become megalomaniacal, overambitious, overexposed and neglectful of the realities of his existence, and finally, gradually, gets taken down by personal fractures within his own organization and by the police. This particular production devotes more screen time to the police than others, dividing time between the sides almost evenly and developing the story as a war/vendetta between the police and the dealer, as opposed to simply being a Rise and Fall of the dealer, but the ground is familiar.
The movie is pretty decent at what it does. Characters are rather well developed. We don't have cardboard cut-outs of good cops, bad dealer... or bad cops, worse dealer... or any of the other possible cliches. Nino Brown, the dealer, is shown realistically. He is intelligent, ambitious, sees an opportunity where it exists and moves to take advantage. We hear in an early speech that he intends to get his along with everyone else in the Reagan era, and so is taking the only route he has left to it. He is also extremely fallible: combative, egomaniacal, unstable, imperious, more suited to solving problems with mindless violence rather than thought-out maneuvering and Machiavellianism. He is tailor-made for this role of a mid-level drug boss who comes up hard and fast on a head of steam, but ultimately doesn't develop what it takes to last. A 1980's Al Capone. Scotty Appleton, Ice-T's cop and Wesley Snipes' foil in this story, is a rough, play-it-his-own-way experienced narco cop with a chip on his shoulder. On the outs with his own department, he gets a rare door back in when his superior gets the green light to head up a task force to take down Nino Brown. He is the classic movie cop since Dirty Harry: independent, angry, very aggressive, the classic lone blue guardian defending us nice people from the hordes at the gates. His mother was killed by a drug addict when he was a boy, he hates what he's seen drugs do to his neighborhood, he is on the thin line as to whether or not he will take the bad guy to court or take him out. Ice-T's not the deepest actor in the world, but he plays the conflict decently enough.
This movie is definitely a New York movie. Those who haven't spent much time in New York or around New Yorkers probably will tend to think that some of this movie, particularly the characters, strain credibility. But in the light of it's cultural setting, both in terms of time and place, it captures well enough. The characters in terms of their behavior and thinking are accurate enough and the events are similar enough to real things to be believable. The story, in most ways, strains believability only as much as movies always do to keep us, the audience, excited and involved.
Snipes does a good early turn as Nino Brown, we could see here that he was going places. Ice-T was alright, this was before his slide into the video store. Mario van Peebles has a comparitively smaller role as the police superior behind the scenes. He reminded me, more than anything, of John Woo as the old mentor cop in his "Hard Boiled". Judd Nelson did well enough as the Italian Bensonhurst cop suddenly sent up the train into black Bed-Sty.
Where this movie starts to crack a bit is largely based on where and when it was produced and the purpose that it was intended for at the time. We see these things with the clarity of hindsight now. In many ways parallels can be drawn between this and Scarface as 1980's crime cinema and 1930's films of the same type. Scarface was (it was actually a remake of a 1932 film of the same name in fact) a rise and fall type picture of the common hood taking advantage of money and power to be had off of a criminalized product at the time, becoming powerful, then getting killed in business (you more observant types out there will catch Scarface's references to James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart films from the 1920's and '30's within the first five minutes: again just to tell us what we're seeing here). These were morality plays of a type, we see that crime doesn't pay. New Jack was in a similar vein, but of a different type. It serves, as it would have seventy years ago, as a more blatant effort: a clarion call to us nice people in Middle America about the threat facing us (the most blatant, and wildly humorous, example from the '30s would be "Reefer Madness", originally titled "Tell Your Children"). We see here in this movie the very worst depictions of the misery of urban crackheads, the powerful ingenue who profits on evil and the righteous guardians of law and order who sally forth to protect us. We are left with a call, actually shown to us before the credits roll at the end, to gird ourselves for the beast we face. This is the 1980's, when Nancy was telling us to Just Say No, George Bush declared a War on Drugs, and cops started showing up in Dare classes to every sixth-grader in America; and New Jack City was on the cinema propaganda front in this war.
The best example is the moral tone of the movie. Beyond its obviousness as such a clarion call, not much shading is used in the characters on the respective sides, a serious hit to the credibility of the film. The good guys, the cops and theirs, might get close to the line, but they never cross it. Ice-T's cop, with all his worldly sensibility, is on a crusade. Even with that, he doesn't do the Dirty Harry thing, killing the bad guy when he has a chance, and instead takes him in, in a move to do a 1930's movie cop proud. While the drug dealers, even with some good character development, are shown to be primarily mindlessly greedy and ambitious and totally self-absorbed. Maybe not far-off in some cases, but contrast it with Catherine Zeta-Jones character in "Traffic". Significantly, corruption on any level, always a significant factor in the drug business and a depressing reminder in nearly every other drug-lord pic (including Scarface) of how the unstoppable profitability of drugs draws all comers, is never portrayed or mentioned at all.
On a lesser, more subtle level, we see the other elements of the 1980's inner-city drug business: crack being the drug of choice, the takeover of whole neighborhoods and apartment blocks at the point of a gun, gang wars, the whole bit. All of it seems just a bit out of place, a relic of a time before we started "winning" the War on Crime. But it serves to drive home the central disconnect. I just happened to see this movie again recently on cable shortly after seeing "Traffic": the jaded, "poorer-but-wiser", portrayal of Drugged America, 2001, in the theater, so I picked up on it in a flash.
This film is a product of not just a physical and temporal environment, but a psychological, social, political and moral environment so different from our own today. When crack first started bringing that so very jealous god Cocaine within reach of the urban poor; urban youths were fighting wars over it and turning American cities into Beirut; ambitious, brutal but short-sighted hoodlums were trading most of the rest of their lives for millions of dollars; no one had ever heard of "medical marijuana" and we had Republicans who actually didn't inhale in office: naturally we got a war, an all-out, all-encompasing, uncompromising effort to enlist All the Americans in a crusade.
Twelve years later, things have changed a bit. The drug endemic, both in business and in its effects, has undergone a "correction" and become more stable, less outwardly violent and more distributed outside the cities. Crack has waned in popularity and market share. Laws have become harsher and wider-ranging and police have become more numerous and more aggressive. Over a million people, including a lot of those who would have been dealing and killing with abandon ten years ago, have been penned up in prisons since then. Those that do make fortunes in drugs are smarter, less ambitious and less overt. We have been "winning" the war on crime. But even in that, we've hit a lot of limits. We've barely scratched the actual drug business itself or its loyal customers. We are concerned about more and more about the costs of this war. We are asking what's the point of fighting a war and asking whether we really want to fight a war anyways. The focus of the problem has shifted from drugs being about "other" people, as inner-city blacks and latinos, who have seen plenty of examples not to follow over the past fifteen years, have learned to avoid crack cocaine and left the current hot "front" in the war around less-urbanized whites and their burgeoning appetite for crystal meth. We are willing to look at alternatives and speak truths unmentionable a decade ago. We even tacitly admit that the US President used cocaine. Ultimately, we've more or less accepted that an uneasy stability is a lot easier to deal with, a lot safer, a lot easier, probably a lot more profitable for everyone and just generally better than engaging full-bore in a pointless and unwinnable war that we don't even really want to fight anyways. If the War on Drugs is Vietnam II, then the 1980's was 1966 and today is more like 1970.
And that's ultimately the disconnect people probably feel about this movie. It's from a different era and a different attitude about the "War". Watch it next to "Traffic". For our era, it is the same thing as watching "The Green Berets", one of John Wayne's last serious efforts at a war movie in 1968, right at the climax of Vietnam, where he tries to do us proud against the evil Communist North Vietnamese; and then watching "Platoon".
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