‘Is this a black thing?’ asked hard-bitten copper Peretti (Judd Nelson) in Mario Van Peebles’s 1991 action classic, and he’s not wrong. Nelson plays pretty much the only white character in a film that redresses the usual casual, tokenistic racial bias in a skilful, aggressive way. Sure, this is a tough-as-balls crime thriller from the Warners label of ganster/gangsta classics, but it’s also a blaxploitation movie that reflects bitterly on the way brothers are turned against each other; ‘You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan era…’ is the key slogan here.
That catch-phrase belongs to Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes), a NYC crime lord who decides to use the new popularity of free-base to gain some kind of mastery over his neighbourhood; he sets up a ‘Mission Impossible’ operation in the Carter apartments, clearing out the local communities and installing rooms to create, refine and even consume his own product. Who’s going to stop him? Cop-killer turned cop-hero Ice-T, that’s who, teamed with Nelson as crazy partner Peretti when Johnny Depp proved too expensive. In shades and goatee, Nelson underplays, understandable when Ice-T proves to be such a formidable presence. A battle for the heart and mind of one user (a young Chris Rock) is centre-stage; Rock actually does a great job of showing how Pookie has his life ruined by drugs.
New Jack City starts with Rock punching Ice-T in the rocks and making off on a child’s bike, and that’s that the opening salvo of a film that features cops and robbers fire-fights, Snipes eating a banana, Vanessa Williams, Flavor Flav, Keith Sweat and Bill Nunn as the Duh Duh Duh Man; you just can’t beat this for salty local colour. But the story manages to capture a certain mad street energy, with Ice-T starting out furious and getting demonstrably more and more angry as the film goes on.
A big hit back in the day, New Jack City hasn’t been subject to revival although a Malcolm Mays revision is reportedly in the works, but there’s a tonne of juice in the tank. Peebles brings an ersatz Godfather energy to picking out the violent elements in the community and bringing them to sharp, cinematic justice. New Jack City has all the energy you could want from a B picture with A-picture aspirations; even hearing Color Me Badd’s awful I Wanna Sex You Up doesn’t ruin this slick shark of a crime melodrama. Years after seeing this, I managed to ruin it by myself by watching Ice-T host an utterly inane improvised game-show in an LA studio with Greg Proops and Tia Carrere; as they say, sometimes it’s best for your heroes to stay on the screen.