Telling the car-jackers' story

April 19, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"New Jersey Drive" is set among the most exiled, the most reviled figures in America. And who would that be? Who are the excommunicants of the body politic?

The young, black urban male, subset auto-theft. You know: the car-jacker.

Totally unsettling to the rest of us, he threatens to violate one of our most precious senses of privacy and ownership. He violates us where, as Americans, we should feel inviolate -- in the throne room of our automobile.

Yet the astonishment of "New Jersey Drive" is that it takes us in and makes us see what we might not want to see: that these young men are human beings, while stopping well-shy of romanticizing them. The film, directed by Nick Gomez, who scored a few years ago with a low-budget urban scorcher called "Laws of Gravity," is based on a series of articles in the New York Times. There, reporter Michael Marriott reported on the Auto-Theft Detail of the Newark Police, a unit that had seemingly gone out of control in its zeal to control the car theft that was plaguing the inner city.

The movie pretty much tells the story from the thieves' point of view, and its vision of police activity is not pleasant. Yet at the same time, it's not willing to buy the alibi on the young men's part that circumstances force them into a life of crime; in fact, it makes crime look like a great deal of fun, and that's what impels them, rather than any larger oppression.

The hero, Jason Petty (Sharron Corley), for example, is no welfare child -- his mother is employed, he's well-dressed and cared for, and the family, though fatherless, is clearly stable and nurturing. It's just the lure of the streets, the undeniable sexiness of a hot car, that draws him ever onward toward destruction.

Gomez never gives us backgrounds on the other members of the gang. They too have passionate connections to the vehicles that mesmerize them and contempt for the dreary owners. "I know more about that Lexus than he does," says Ronnie, "so how come he gets to drive it and I don't?" Failing to find a rational answer to that question, Ronnie pulls a gun and helps himself to the car.

The movie is particularly effective as an accounting of the Auto-Theft Unit, a crew of hot dogs led by Lt. Roscoe (chilling Saul Stein). In fact, the movie opens with the crux of the issue: Two boys have stolen a policeman's car. The police essentially ambush them, opening fire without provocation, grievously wounding one and turning the other (Jason) into a potential grand jury witness.

But the film doesn't really turn on that issue. It's more like a work of urban anthropology -- unsettling, unromantic and completely convincing. In fact, if it reminds me of anything, it's Richard Price's novel "Clockers," which examined dope-dealer culture with the same essential dispassion and is also set in New Jersey.

The oddity here is that "Clockers" is being turned into a film from a script by Price, as directed by Spike Lee. And who is the executive producer of "New Jersey Drive"? Why, Spike Lee. He may have scooped himself, and he'll have to go a long way to top the deadpan realism of "New Jersey Drive."

'NEW JERSEY DRIVE'

Starring Sharron Corley and Saul Stein

Directed by Nick Gomez

Released by Gramercy

Rated R (Language, violence)

***

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