WITH ''NEW Jack City,'' Mario Van Peebles lets the industry know that he is much more than a pretty face. Van Peebles, who directed and appears in the new film, proves that he can both act and direct and do both for the same movie.
The film, opening here today, comes close to comic book time and time again, but just as often, it remains in check. The plot may seem a bit fanciful, but it easy enough to read all this as truth, the kind we get from the newspapers.
Van Peebles, heretofore known primarily as an actor (''Heartbreak Ridge''), should have no trouble doing double duty from now on. His film is fast, stylish and extremely well written. It is also brutal, perhaps excessively so, but Van Peebles doesn't linger, and the script, by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper, is evenhanded.
''New Jack City'' walks the middle line. It is fair without being preachy. The only preachy thing about it is the postscript, which Van Peebles did not want to include but was overruled by others.
At times, ''New Jack City'' plays like the black version of ''Scarface,'' and Van Peebles would be the last to deny that. To assure the comparison, he has some of the characters watch a cassette of the Al Pacino version of ''Scarface.''
The lead character is Nino Brown (Wesley Swipes) who is introduced to crack in 1986, by a friend who assures him that this is the drug wave of the future, that it will make everyone who sells it rich.
It does, and in time Nino and his buddies take over an entire housing unit in Harlem, one they rule as dictators. The residents either like it or leave it.
The police know what is going on, but they need evidence and persuade a former addict to wear a recorder when he makes it into the inner sanctum.
People die, others destroy all the lives they touch, and when Nino is finally brought to court, he takes advantage of all the loopholes his lawyers can find.
The ending of ''New Jack City'' is predictable, but that's the way you want it. That's the way you want this movie to end.
The cast is uniformly good. Van Peebles, Russell Wong, rap artist Ice-T and Judd Nelson play the detectives who try to close in on Brown. The cast is a racial mix, but the name-calling is minimized, one more reason to appreciate this film.
''New Jack City'' opens here today. Put it down as one of the better gangster movies. Put Van Peebles down as one of the better directors of action movies.
''New Jack City'' *** New York detectives try to close down a drug king operating Harlem.
CAST: Mario Van Peebles, Judd Nelson, Ice-T, Russell Wong, Wesley Snipes, Allen Payne, Chris Rock, Michael Michele, Vanessa Williams
DIRECTOR: Mario Van Peebles
RATING: R (sex, nudity, language, violence)
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes