"New Jack City" is like an update of a famous Gershwin opera into "Porgy and Uzi."
It's about a culture with plenty o' nothing: nothing, that is, except crack and cruelty, guns and machismo, doom and hopelessness. Yet the miracle of the movie is that this landscape of human wreckage is re-created with a kind of folkloric and compulsively watchable brio.
Substitute "York" for "Jack" in the title, and you know where the film is set -- in that free-fire zone of the Bronx that looks as if the 24th Mechanized Infantry has just helled through on wheels on the road to Kuwait. In this maze of rubble, Nino Brown comes to rule.
Nino, played by the Wesley Snipes who was so dangerous in "Mo' Better Blues," is a visionary dope dealer who is first to grasp the extraordinary growth potential of the drug called crack and to understand, moreover, how best to merchandize it. He's the Ray Kroc of crack.
Assembling a small, elite force of killers, he quickly becomes the most feared drug dealer in the city; and soon he's tough enough to go against the boys who hang out in the Italian-American social club.
Meanwhile a squad of cops is forming to bring the man down, led by Detective Scotty Appleton (the rapper Ice T) and Detective Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson).
What gives the production, directed by Mario Van Peebles (who also plays a police executive without making much of an impression), its distinction is its sense of scale. If he sometimes falters as an action director and if the materials feel somewhat coarse and unleavened with either subtlety or grace, Van Peebles nevertheless proceeds along almost at a mythic level, working out the parable of original sin as it's transformed the paradise that was America into war zone. It's the Archetypes-R-Us school of filmmaking.
Van Peebles has also worked hard to avoid the implicit flaw in crime movies, which is that evil has its own subversive charisma. As in "The Godfather" films and on back to Howard Hawks' original "Scarface," with Paul Muni in 1932, gangsters may nominally be the bad guys, but they get all the good lines and they get to wear the best clothes. Young kids want to be like them and not the dour coppers who end their fun in the last reel.
Van Peebles gets around this by insisting upon the flamboyance of his cops. Ice T has a neurotic urban edge; you feel his pain breaking through and the raspy crackle of his voice stands for a sensibility that's crippled with stress. His Ahab-like quest for Nino Brown is authentically operatic. Then there's Judd Nelson, for many years a favored whipping boy of the critics. Nelson may have saved his career with this one dynamic job: his Nick is a kind of beatnik tough guy, complete to jazz musician's goatee and Ginsberg smoked shades; he even wears little lid hats.
The movie, of course, makes the politically correct point that drugs are evil and toward the end it delivers nice little sermons to this effect, for which it deserves polite applause: but it also suggests the uncomfortable truth that concepts of racial "togetherness" frequently get in the way of forceful action. The drug dealer, it has the guts to say, is nobody's brother. And that's the facts, Jack.
'New Jack City'
Starring Wesley Snipes and Ice T.
Directed by Mario Van Peebles.
Released by Warner Bros.