“Times like these, people want to get high. Real high and real fast.” says the character of Nino Brown played by Wesley Snipes in New Jack City, an urban take on Scarface, the rise and fall of an American Gangster. Though with a runtime of 96 minutes this is not as layered as the Brian DePalma movie with Al Pacino, a movie that isn’t just the inspiration for this movie but is also literally featured in the movie as an inspiration for Nino as he stand in front of a movie screen in his home when Tony Montana is in the final showdown and exclaims to the people in the room that the world is his. When asked if he won’t be as careless as Tony Montana he confirms this, but we already know; drugs might get you rich fast, they can also get you in jail for a long time or get you killed. After all this is a business where guns are taken to a meeting.
The moment we meet Nino it’s 1986 and he has already started out in the drug trade and just discovered crack cocaine as the next big thing. His plan is to take over an entire building with courtyard and all and turns this in a fortress where the drugs are produced and where the junkies get high. The people that live there are simply forced out of their homes should they not cooperate. I had a hard time believing that a group of thugs could simply do this without ever getting the police and SWAT interfering but apparently this part was actually based on a real life story. To me this still sound kind of stupid, because if something The Wire taught me it’s that stash houses, the production and all should be separated as much as possible. If the police takes one thing down, they then don’t take everything down.
Where a movie like Scarface, or other gangster epics for that matter take their time to tell the story of the central characters, New Jack City wants its audience to get real high, real fast. Not only do we quickly fast forward to 1989 where said apartment building is already in full function as a complete drug mall, we also view the side of the police as they find out about this building and form a small specialized group that will take Nino down, complete with the aid of a form crackhead called Pookie.
Pookie is played by a very young Chris Rock and goes from thief to crackhead, from addicted to recovered and from recovered to relapse. And together with the rise and fall of Nino, the police procedural there is a third story about Pookie which ties the two roles together as Pookie goes undercover as an employee of Nino. That’s like putting Cookie Monster in charge of a cookie factory and still expect product to leave the plant.
Snipes is shining as the character of Nino Brown, while the cops are efficiently played by Ice-T and Judd Nelson. I find Ice-T to be an interesting pick considering his affiliation with gangster rap at the time as well as being responsible for police-hate-filled music. But nowadays you can see him catch bad guys every week on one of the many Law & Order spin-offs that are out there and that’s mainly because of New Jack City I guess. Can’t imagine it being because of Tank Girl.
But the weakest part is the real high, real fast part of the script. The pacing is pretty high but it never digs below the surface of these characters or their story. Only Pookie actually goes through some sort of development. We never see Nino actually grow as a drug dealer, the movie just skips from 1986 to 1989. The cops are more busy rehabilitating Pookie than actually investigating and only in the last 20 minutes Ice-T goes undercover.
And yet, to a certain degree it’s a modern day classic. Not when you compare it to Goodfellas, Scarface and other similar themed movies of course, but on its own it’s left its mark. The motive has been sampled dry in a variety of music styles and the movie itself has a distinctive soundtrack. If the motive had just focused on Nino’s rise and fall alone it could have been a true classic.
Sometimes people don’t want to get real high, real fast. They just want to take the time and enjoy their meal.