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‘New Jack City’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 08, 1991

The excitement factor in "New Jack City," especially at the beginning, is inescapable. A tough off-screen voice announces, "You are now about to witness the stren'th of street knowledge." A pounding rap tune fills your head. You swoop vicariously into New York on the pinion of an airborne camera . . . .

From this moment on, Mario Van Peebles's drugland feature, a relentless, hold-on-to-your-hat experience, rarely lets up. Essentially a gangster rise-and-fall movie wrapped up in gold chains, it's about a lethally enterprising street gang led by Wesley Snipes that builds a brutal, multimillion-dollar crack empire in Harlem. The gang's ascent is meteoric. Snipes's henchmen (including Allen Payne and a stuttering Bill Nun) convert a huge apartment building into a secret narcotic fortress. Their power becomes so awesome, their methods so brutal, that undercover cops Ice-T and Judd Nelson, with assistance from supervisor Van Peebles, lead an unofficial special team to take appropriately powerful, state-of-the-art measures.

No one can accuse Van Peebles of originality, or subtlety. Not in a movie in which Snipes's female minions, their breasts bared, prepare crack in a sweat-shop room; nor in a movie in which Snipes -- with Al Pacino's "Scarface" projected on a home screen behind him -- yells "The world is mine! All mine!"

"Scarface," which figures big in this film, is but one of the familiar sources Van Peebles reaches for. He extracts from '30s gangster pictures, the '70s blaxploitation era and more recent offerings such as "The Godfather" and "The Untouchables." But he creates a powerful, straight-shooting urgency that's very much his own. Van Peebles, who has directed music videos as well as episodes of "21 Jump Street" and "Wise Guy," employs such speedy, video-age direction, the movie whizzes by too quickly to be caught in cliches.

Politically, "Jack's" colors are unmistakable. Events in this movie begin in 1986, the conservative movement's profit-ueber-alles era. At the top are the Trumps and underneath, in the Hades of America, in the New Jack Cities, there's only one way to become big. "You gotta rob in the Reagan era to get rich," Snipes tells his gang.

Fulfilling the requisite forces of good, Ice-T, in shades and dread-pan delivery is likably tough, a cool, positive role model without looking too much like one. He leads a white-hat cop gang, including Van Peebles as a behind-the-scenes detective, the almost unrecognizable (but amusing) Nelson, Russell Wong and recovering-addict informer Chris Rock.

"It's not a black thing," says Nelson. "It's not a white thing. It's a death thing."

But if the gang seems too much like an R-rated Benetton ad, and if Van Peebles's overt messages to stop the killing are everywhere, they're well-integrated with the entertainment factor. The director knows the bottom line -- which is why Ice-T's gang gets to storm the Snipes fortress with lethal, high-tech, infrared weaponry.

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