It grossed $53 million in theaters, but imagine how much more New Jack City would have made if people hadn’t been scared of catching a bullet with their ticket. It’s a safe bet that the violence that marred the opening of Mario Van Peebles’ galvanizing cop drama — most notably, a gunfight in a New York theater that left one dead and a riot outside an overbooked Los Angeles multiplex — made just about everyone but the movie’s young, urban core audience stay home.

Twenty years ago, that would have been the end of the New Jack City story. But in the age of the video after-market, curious renters can now watch films like this ghetto-blasting crime flick in the safety of their own comfy chairs. And that would be just fine if New Jack City didn’t work its magic more convincingly on the big screen.

This is not to say the video is a dud. On the contrary, it’s tough, flashy entertainment that can be recommended to anybody except the terminally timid. But where some films are private experiences that fit well in the home environment, others are public spectacles, painted in broad, loud colors. Their strength is their largeness; a small screen mocks them. In the theater, New Jack City had a jazzy visual-sonic ferocity that simply overwhelmed the viewer, making it easy to overlook its banal story line. On video, that banality is harder to ignore.

For surface spark, though, this gangsterama drama is the one to beat. Urged forward by a nagging, propulsive rap soundtrack, City pits a silky crack kingpin against an unorthodox, salt-and-pepper cop duo. Groan, that old rag, but look again. The kingpin, Nino Brown, is played by Wesley Snipes (Jungle Fever‘s lustlorn buppie) as a natty urban businessman with ambitions in overdrive: He’s a preening parody of ’80s corporate sharks. Scotty Appleton, the black cop, is played in a fine, cut-the-crap acting debut by Ice-T. This is a smart casting move, since the rapper has the necessary street credentials to put the old-hat role over with an audience of homeboys. The rest of the large cast delivers pungent pleasures, too, especially Saturday Night Live‘s Chris Rock as a not-quite-reformed crackhead, Bill Nunn (Harrison Ford’s therapist in Regarding Henry) as a stuttering hood, and dethroned Miss America Vanessa Williams as a very mean hit lady (take that, Bert Parks).

On the debit side, Judd Nelson brings a Maynard G. Krebs goatee and little else to the underwritten role of Scotty’s partner, and Mario Van Peebles, who also directed, is just too young and slick to believe as the duo’s embattled superior officer. He uses that slickness to better effect behind the camera, with off-kilter angles and jagged cuts that are the visual equivalent of rap’s roller-coaster wordplay. Van Peebles mostly cribs his tricks from MTV, but when they work, as in the scarifying montage of Nino’s reign of terror set to an a cappella medley of ”For the Love of Money” and ”Livin’ for the City,” there’s no missing the anger behind the flash.

Still, nothing in Van Peebles’ movie has the blunt killer force of the celebrated crackhouse scene in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever — and you don’t have to be a crackhead to see why. After setting up complex characters in a recognizably real world, Lee takes us to hell. New Jack City‘s reality, on the other hand, derives almost entirely from other pop culture: cop shows like Miami Vice, blaxploitation classics like Shaft, gangster movies like The Godfather and Brian De Palma’s Scarface — the last a movie that Nino Brown watches obsessively on video. New Jack City is 100 minutes of snazzy signifiers that refer only to other media signposts.

Of course, there really was a New York drug lord who patterned his persona after Pacino’s Tony Montana (to the extent of naming one of his business fronts ”Montana Dry Cleaning”). And, yes, drug gangs in New York have turned apartment buildings into one-stop-shopping crack factories, as Nino’s mob does here. But Van Peebles is torn between telling it like it is and giving his audience a ride. Nino’s men don’t just take over a building, they commandeer an entire housing complex and revamp it into a high-tech Batcave, replete with zombie addicts standing guard outside and pneumatic tubes to deliver the product. Even Nino, in Snipes’ amusingly florid performance, is too superbad for belief. He’s like a James Bond archvillain — a Blofeld of the South Bronx.

Van Peebles obviously knows that the kids who most need to hear the antidrug/antiviolence message don’t buy tickets to lectures. That’s why, in the interview segment shot to run before the feature on this home video release, the director asks that his movie be seen as ”edu-tainment.” But how much can you dilute your message before it gets lost? In the theater, with the soundtrack ricocheting through your head and the auditorium filled with in-your-face emotional electricity, some of Van Peebles’ intended desperation came through.

At home, though, the score sounds dinky if you don’t have a stereo hookup, and the electricity congeals into attitude as soon as you notice how much care has gone into delineating Nino’s glamorous life-style. And without that larger-than-life impact, the end titles that natter on about ”approaching the problem realistically” ring pious and hollow. New Jack City makes a pretense of dropping harsh urban realities into your lap, but on video it comes off as just an extremely well made B movie. If you were too wary to see it with a live audience, go ahead and rent the tape. You’ll get your money’s worth. But by playing it safe, you may also be sorry. B

New Jack City
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