It may be inevitable that yesterday's innovations become today's clichés. Accordingly, many of the elements 1991's New Jack City helped popularize have become tired conventions of the overheated urban thriller, from casting popular rappers in lead roles to "sampling" liberally from Scarface to the ubiquitous wall-to-wall hip-hop and R&B soundtrack. In this era of Soul Plane and Are We There Yet?, it seems hard to believe that a mere 14 years ago, explicitly marketing a film to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the black youth audience was a novel and audacious move, but New Jack City's historic box-office success provided studios with a potent reminder of just how sizable the audience for black movies could be.
Now released as a two-disc DVD set, along with gushing documentaries, an audio commentary, videos, and even a walking tour of Harlem, New Jack City captured the zeitgeist a little too well, essentially tossing itself into a time capsule along with its Gumby hairstyles, flamboyant fashion misstatements, and infectious Color Me Badd single ("I Wanna Sex You Up"). Even the title has aged poorly, commemorating for posterity New Jack Swing, a short-lived, little-remembered fusion of hip-hop and R&B pioneered by Teddy Riley. Yet New Jack City endures today largely due to the incandescent lead performance of Wesley Snipes, who manages to exude menace and electricity even while flaunting the ill-advised jacket-over-bare-torso look.
Snipes stars as a silky drug kingpin who rides the crack epidemic to massive heights of wealth and power in Reagan/Bush-era Harlem. But his success invites the unwanted attention of street-smart cop Ice-T, rebel-cop-who-plays-by-his-own-rules Judd Nelson, and stern-but-dedicated boss Mario Van Peebles, all of whom conspire to bring Snipes down while simultaneously embodying many of the cheesiest clichés of the cop-movie genre.
Mario Van Peebles' hit directorial debut certainly wasn't the first black crime movie. Mario's dad Melvin kick-started an entire decade's worth of blaxploitation crime joints with 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. What made New Jack City different was its epic ambition, a desire to craft a black crime epic worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Scarface, The Godfather, and Goodfellas. Van Peebles succeeds, at least partially, thanks to Snipes, who lends his scenes with partner-turned-betrayer Allen Payne a heartbreaking poignancy. But the demonic spell cast by Snipes' larger-than-life star turn breaks whenever he's offscreen, at which point the film turns into a glorified buddy-cop TV pilot, complete with didactic, heavy-handed anti-drug sermonizing and stern moralizing that'd make William Hays, Nancy Reagan, and Jack Webb proud. (For a fun drinking game, try taking a shot every time someone says crack is destroying the black community.) Lopsided, flawed, but still shot through with infectious youthful energy, New Jack City has aged poorly, but Snipes' iconic lead performance remains timeless.