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It was pre-ordained that the gov’ment would get Wesley Snipes for tax evasion. In 1991, Snipes played the Scarface-obsessed Nino Brown in Mario Van Peebles’ directorial debut, New Jack City. Ollie Stone and Brian De Palma’s 1983 ghetto favorite, which plays behind Brown during a pivotal scene, was based on Howard Hawks’ 1932 version of Scarface. That in turn was based on several events in the life of Al Capone. And what did the gov’ment get Al Capone for, dudes and chicks? All together now: TAX EVASION!
If we apply this logic elsewhere, Charlize Theron gonna kill somebody and Jake Gyllenhaal gonna have sex with your boyfriend. But let’s stick with New Jack City’s powers of destiny. Ice-T plays the New Jack City cop who wants to bring Nino down, and where is Ice-T now? Playing a cop on Law and Order: The Show That Won’t Die. And this is a man who isn’t choosy about the roles he plays. He played a kangaroo in Tank Girl. Yet he didn’t play another cop until Law and Order a decade later, so they didn’t cast him because he played cops in other movies. It’s the curse of New Jack City. Cop Killer my ass! Cop PLAYER is more like it.
New Jack City wants to be an anti-crack movie, and is at times heavy-handed in its message delivery, but I can see right through all that. This movie’s main objective is to turn gangster movie clichés into gangsta movie clichés. The anti-drug message is noble, but Mario and company weld it to a violent crowd pleaser with a hissable villain and an easy, recognizable line between good and evil. In a way, New Jack City is Scarface, Colorized.
Not that I’m complaining. I love this movie. I may be the only ‘hood denizen who thought Pacino’s Scarface was a piece of chit (I’m a Carlito’s Way kinda guy), and van Peebles’ tip of the hat to it is WAY too obvious. But as quiet as it’s kept, New Jack City has been almost as influential to hip-hop as Tony Montana. For example, Li’l Wayne’s last name may be Carter, but that’s not why he named his album Tha Carter. And Cash Money Records was started by two brothers, making them the Cash Money Brothers, the CMB in New Jack City’s dialogue.
The Scarface parallels are a small price to pay to see Wesley in the best role of his career. New Jack City allows him to play many aspects that Denzel would try (and fail) to play in American Gangster years later. As I said once before here at BMV, Snipes is not afraid to truly get dirty. Denzel can’t pull this off. As much as I liked Training Day, I didn’t buy the late-reel King Kong Ain’t Got Shit On Me Denzel. American Gangster’s Frank Lucas made me think of his Mo’ Better Blues co-star uttering his famous (and my favorite) line from that film: “That’s bullshit! Everything you just said is bullshit.” Snipes would have made a better Frank Lucas—Nino Brown is clearly influenced by him--but he was probably running from the gov’ment at the time.
One of the stars of New Jack City is crack. It gets more screen time than some of the actors, including Vanessa Williams (not THAT one!) and her fellow Williams, Christopher. Early in the film, a crack vial is given a loving close-up by van Peebles. Nino picks it up and, thanks to his partner and best buddy Gee Money (Allen Payne), decides that it will be the key to his success. “The world is mine” becomes Nino’s catchphrase, echoing both versions of Scarface’s The World Is Yours. Nino and Gee Money hatch a plan to take over The Carter Apartments, using it as a base for their crack making organization. It’s 1986, and crack is just becoming epidemic in the inner city. Nino and his CMB crew get in on the ground floor, just before things get ugly and profitable.
New Jack City opens with shots of New York City. As the camera finds our anti-hero on a bridge, Queen Latifah, Troop and Levert sing a version of the elder Levert’s classic, For the Love Of Money merged with Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City. On the bridge, Nino holds a man in debt to him over the East River, letting him go without a second thought. We then find our hero cop Scotty undercover, about to buy drugs from Chris Rock’s Pookie. Pookie robs Scotty, and takes off on a bicycle. As Scotty chases him on foot, to the strains of his portrayer’s rap song, New Jack Hustler, van Peebles’ camera follows along swiftly, switching between overhead and point of view shots. Pookie drives his bicycle down steps and flies in the air like Elliot with a duffel bag of money instead of E.T. Scotty winds up shooting Pookie in the leg. Money flies everywhere, and as people try to run off with it, Scotty identifies himself as a cop. On the street is Kareem Akbar (Christopher Williams), the computer programmer turned Nino Brown cohort.
Three years later, crack is everywhere, and Nino Brown has turned The Carter into a successful base for his organization. He’s intimidated or blown away his enemies and scared the inhabitants and/or made them customers. They have a computer setup thanks to Akbar, whom Nino refers to as “that pretty muthafucka,” and a system of manufacturing and delivering crack. He has Dun Dun Dun Man (a stuttering Bill Nunn) for muscle and numerous lookouts. Brown’s system is so tight that, had Whitney Houston brought product from him, he would have given her a receipt. Detective Stone (van Peebles) wants to get Nino Brown, but like Don King, nothing sticks to him. Stone hires Scotty, who knows the streets, to help him bring down CMB. He pairs him with a White cop named Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson) who is, as the cliché must dictate, just as big a loose cannon as Scotty. Scotty takes one look at Peretti and it’s hate at first sight. Stone won’t recruit Scotty without Peretti, so Scotty acquiesces. Peretti celebrates by shooting a happy face shape in the wall.
Meanwhile, Pookie has become a crackhead. Chris Rock is pretty young in this picture, and his skinny frame works to the character’s advantage. When we see Pookie, he is on line waiting to get fed by Nino Brown’s food line outside. Brown buys turkeys for the homeless and gives little kids money, but he’s also enslaving the neighborhood with crack. Pookie is a beneficiary of both Brown’s humanitarian efforts and his misanthropy. Scotty sees him and follows him to a crackhouse, to find him beating up a crack ho over a piece of turkey. Perhaps feeling guilty for shooting him, Scotty drags Pookie into rehab.
Pookie’s rehabilitation is shown in a montage of scenes with him getting the monkey off his back. As soon as the movie does this, we know Pookie is doomed. Rock gives a very credible performance as a crack head, almost as good as Samuel L. Jackson’s in Jungle Fever. What happens next made me think of Sam, who once said that the second he got out of rehab for crack, Spike Lee cast him as Gator Purify in Wesley’s next picture. As soon as Pookie has kicked the crack habit, Scotty sends him undercover at The Carter. Wearing a camera belt and a wire, he gets hired as a lookout. Stone has doubts, but Pookie begs Scotty to give him something to do to get his mind off of crack. Unfortunately, Kareem Akbar promotes him to the crack manufacturing area. Handling all those little vials of crack proves too much for Pookie. He falls off the wagon big time, blows the investigation and gets caught by Gee Money wearing the surveillance equipment.
Scotty and company try to rescue Pookie, but they are too late. Gee Money has not only killed him but rigged him with a bomb to destroy all the evidence that wasn’t burned up in the fire Gee Money set at The Carter. Peretti and Scotty defuse the bomb, but no evidence is left to convict Nino Brown. As a result of numerous cop deaths that occurred in a prior bomb blast, Stone gets his ass chewed out, then passes on the savings to Peretti and Scotty. “It’s over,” he tells them.
Scotty’s guilt over Pookie gets the best of him, and during a drinking binge with Peretti, he expresses remorse. “I got Pookie killed,” he tells Peretti. Peretti responds by telling him he used to be “White trash Pookie,” a former drug addict. It’s a very good scene for Nelson, and like Snipes, this is probably his best role. He joins forces with Scotty to bring down CMB behind their superiors’ backs.
Nino and Gee Money were like brothers, but a woman comes between them. She’s Uniqua, whose name must have inspired The Backyardigans, and she’s played by She’s Gotta Have It’s Tracy Camilla Johns. Gee Money has a thing for her, but she’s attracted to the powerful Nino. Nino’s woman (Michael Michele) is tired of Nino’s womanizing, but he ignores her. Nino’s sloppiness with his personal relationships will come back to bite him numerous times, starting with that incident at The Carter. Nino was too busy with Uniqua (who gets a scene set to Color Me Badd’s I Wanna Sex You Up) to pay attention to The Carter’s activities. As a result, they have to start over because of Pookie’s undercover work. Nino responds to this by treating Gee Money like shit and stabbing the pretty muthafucka in the hand with his pimp cane knife. Upset about his treatment, Gee Money turns into Pookie, that is, he starts smoking his product.
There are a lot of singers in New Jack City, and except for Ice-T, they’re all on the side of the drug dealer. Even Nick Ashford is on Nino’s payroll, and he’s a minister! The group Guy sings at Nino’s club, and whiny ass Keith Sweat whines his way through a song at a wedding paid for by Nino’s money. This wedding is a turning point in the film for the audience. Nino has been playing the Mafia for fools, and after humiliating one of their messengers, the Mafia takes revenge, turning the wedding into a bloodbath. Up until this point, the audience with whom I saw New Jack City was firmly on Nino’s side. Snipes changes their mind the second he pulls one of the flower girls in front of him as a shield once the Mafia starts shooting. She survives, but my audience wanted blood after that.
Scotty infiltrates Nino Brown’s organization, courtesy of an increasingly unstable Gee Money. Gee Money wants to cut a side deal so he can overtake Nino Brown once and for all. Scotty uses this to drive an even bigger wedge between the two while offering to get Nino enough drugs to kickstart his new venture. Scotty earns Nino’s trust by stopping Bill Cobbs from shooting him. Cobbs plays an old, Bible quoting man who lives in a crack-infested neighborhood courtesy of Nino Brown. Cobbs lectures Nino, who asks him what has he done for the community lately. Cobbs answers that by pulling a gun. You know how they say if a gun is introduced in the first act, it’s going to be fired in the third?
Peretti breaks into Nino’s safe and gets all the incriminating 3.5 inch disks from The Carter’s computers (I love how criminals always make this kind of computer boo-boo in the movies). Scotty is all ready to make the drug deal at the same location, with police officer Russell Wong pointing his camera in a hidden area, when Kareem finally remembers where he saw Scotty. And that he’s a cop. A shootout occurs, and Nino escapes.
What follows is the one scene in New Jack City I’ve always questioned. Brown and Gee Money meet one final time, and Snipes’ acting here is excellent and complex. Gee Money, high on crack, confronts Nino, reminding him of how they were brothers and how he felt betrayed. Brown responds by scolding Gee Money both for smoking crack and for letting Uniqua come between them. Gee Money asks if things can go back to the way they used to be. Brown hugs Gee Money, and Snipes sheds tears as he does so. Repeating a line from earlier in the film, Gee Money asks if Brown is his brother’s (that is, his) keeper. Brown answers yes, and shoots Gee Money. I was always conflicted about why Brown, his face streaming with tears, shoots him. Does he shoot him because he’s afraid he’ll turn snitch, or does he shoot him because Gee Money has become the one thing Brown knows has no future—a crackhead?
Screenwriters Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper give Snipes several speeches about why he does what he does, including a courtroom scene where Brown shows he’s as crafty with the law as he is with crime. One of Snipes’ speeches even helps Ice-T’s performance. Watch Ice-T’s face as he realizes the woman Nino Brown tells him he shot as part of a gang initiation was Scotty’s mother. He has to realize it, then play it off. Ice-T’s voice even shakes as he responds to the story, and it makes you itch for the moment when Scotty finally gets a crack at whipping Nino Brown’s ass.
New Jack City ends with an audience satisfying fate for Nino Brown, a nice bow to wrap the film with and a nod to the Hays Code notion that criminals couldn’t get away with their crimes. But as in the far more horrendous Colors, the real truth lies in Ice-T’s theme song. At the end of New Jack Hustler, he raps “lock me up, it’s genocidal catastrophe/They’ll be another one after me, a hustler.”