By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 28, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Of all the filmmakers who have used live-wire documentary techniques to create an atmosphere of raw, organic realism, perhaps none has gone quite as far as the New York-based writer-director Nick Gomez. His first feature, Laws of Gravity (1992), was shot for $38,000 and employed an electrifying verite style-a handheld camera tracked the characters like an angry bumblebee-that turned out to be far more memorable than the rancorous street louts the movie was about. With his follow-up effort, however, Gomez has taken a startling leap as a filmmaker. Set in Newark, NEW JERSEY DRIVE (Gramercy, R) is an explosive look at delinquent black teenagers who spend their days stealing cars (and cruising around in them) as casually as if they were shoplifting pencils. The entire city is their free used-auto lot-and drag strip. Their lives are one big dead-end existential joyride. In New Jersey Drive, a drive-by shooting has the immediacy of a live news report. A car chase isn’t the usual choreographed chain of Hollywood thrills but a crazy concrete slalom (at one point there’s an accident and we’re inside the car being struck), and the cops are a leather-clad death squad. What makes New Jersey Drive a powerful experience is the way that Gomez employs his volcanic, this-is-happening-now aesthetic to mirror the view of his characters, who see crime not as a profit-driven enterprise but as an exercise in instant gratification, a desperate, blood-quickening lunge at getting what whites have. After all, if the reason some yuppie clown drives a Lexus and you don’t boils down to the fact that you’re black well, why not take the Lexus? As for the future-there is no future. The future is what happens one minute from now, and the movie lets us know-kinesthetically-how that feels. Like Menace II Society, which it rivals in insight and dramatic force, New Jersey Drive is yet another cautionary Scorsesean psychodrama about the symbiotic alliance of two young hoodfellas-Jason (Sharron Corley), the more thoughtful and conflicted of the two, and Midget (Gabriel Casseus), his smiling pal, a gentler, less-psycho-than-usual variation on the De Niro hothead role. Corley and Casseus are superb actors. They bring Jason and Midget’s humanity movingly close to us without in any way soft-pedaling the characters’ sociopathic disaffection. New Jersey Drive is, on some level, a cry of rage and despair. The one place Gomez allows himself to edge into melodrama is in the creation of a villain, a sadistic cop (Saul Stein) who’s hell-bent on nailing the young crooks. The irony is that the audience may end up hating this character even more than the heroes do. To Jason and Midget, he’s the enemy, all right, but he’s also just one more menace in a surreal daily war zone, where crime is but a fleeting escape from a life that means nothing.