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‘New Jack City’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 08, 1991

Mario Van Peebles' "New Jack City" whizzes past your head with the velocity of a bullet, and with such immediacy that it leaves behind a whiff of cordite. This tale of inner-city drug wars has a powder-keg explosiveness. It puts you right in the teeming center of the conflict between a visionary drug kingpin named Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and the team of renegade cops assigned to bring him down, right where the war fires burn hottest, where the streets of Harlem pulse with so much raw life that your senses are nearly overrun.

The stuff of "New Jack City" is the stuff of a thousand exploitation films; it's the familiar story of cops versus pushers, yet somehow, though the shape of the narrative and a lot of the details are commonplace, Van Peebles penetrates to the reality behind the cliches. He deals with the conventions of the modern drug genre in the same manner that Francis Ford Coppola dealt with the gangster genre in the "Godfather" films. He approaches them as what they were before they became cliches, when they were facts in a real-life story, when they still retained some of their depth and complexity.

The "Godfather" films transcended their mobster genre; "New Jack City" doesn't, but it's a great genre film, edgy, vibrant and full of urgent color. Snipes's Brown is a Don Corleone of sorts, but with a taste for electric-blue suits and wild shades; he has a family of loyals that he binds together with talk of brotherhood. Brown's great distinction is that while everyone else was still dealing coke, he saw the multimillion-dollar street potential of crack. But that was only part of his vision; the other part was to take control of a huge old apartment house in the neighborhood and turn it into a combination fort and factory. The result is like a nightmare commingling of IBM and Dante's "Inferno." While workers prepare the product in sterile, high-tech surroundings, the courtyard and smoking rooms are littered with jittery human derelicts. It's a totally controlled drug universe -- a junkie Disneyland.

With the enormous profits from his trade, Brown insulates himself completely and becomes nearly untouchable, especially from the police, who know precisely what he's up to but can't get to him. The cops heading up the operation against Brown aren't exactly standard issue, and the two chief protagonists, Scotty and Nick (the rapper Ice-T and Judd Nelson) aren't what you'd call pals, either. The thinking is, though, that a new breed of cop is needed to fight this new breed of criminal, one who's been down in the pits -- Nick's an ex-addict and Scotty's mother was killed by a junkie -- and know the face of the enemy, close up.

The performances are stoked with hyperbolic verve. The actors all seem to have hooked into the pure, concentrated heart of their characters, and while their emotions are big, there's no empty strutting in them -- they're street-operatic. Snipes's work is lustrous and threatening; beneath the sleek, chilled surfaces are rippling, angry muscles. When he lashes out, his talons slash holes in the screen. Ice-T brings a mongrel intensity to his role as the fiercely committed Scotty; he doesn't just want to bring Brown down, he wants to eat out his heart. And he's complemented well by Nelson, who in slipping slightly into the background seems less mannered, more solid than when he's asked to play the lead.

Chris Rock, whose talents have so far been wasted on "Saturday Night Live," gives a nervy, almost childlike performance as a former crackhead who provides the cops their chance to infiltrate Brown's inner circle. Meanwhile, Brown is in the process of self-destructing, of slipping down the black hole of his own power.

Van Peebles, who burns his debut as a director right into your gut -- and also plays a small role as the police commander -- gives a savage urban energy to every composition. "New Jack" is a term one journalist used to describe the turbulent new mood in the inner cities, and Mario Van Peebles -- who's the son of filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles -- gets under the fingernails of this fierce spirit. But his direction isn't all boombox hype. He has a sense of how to modulate a dramatic moment, a sense of proportion and scale, and a revitalizing brand of integrity. Maybe commitment is a better word. Van Peebles wanted to tell this story; his heart is in it, and it's got a killer beat.

"New Jack City" is rated R for strong language, drug use, nudity and violence.

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