Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Movies I Grew Up With: New Jack City

Technically, this isn't a movie I grew up with since I was twenty years old the first time I saw it. And since that was more than twenty years ago, I'll just say it qualifies. Besides, calling what I was at that age an adult is a physical description only. I was in the Army, and stationed in Hawaii. During one of those rare moments when I wasn't on duty or in a bar/nightclub (how'd I get into those? hmmm), one of my roommates and a gaggle of our buddies got together and went to see New Jack City. After all, a number of us were from the Big Apple, where the movie was set, and loved the commercials. A couple of us snuck in some beverages they don't sell at movie theaters and away we went.

NJC was a trip inside crack era New York, which I lived through, but had never had a look at on the big screen. Rappers were also new to the cinema. A few had made it in movies specifically about rap and played themselves, or had cameos in other movies. This one was billed as starring Ice-T. Now he's a household name with a reality show and a still popular cop show. Back then, he was just that pimp-lookin', perm wearing brotha from the west coast that did the rapping in the Breakin' movies, made "I'm Your Pusher," and "Six in the Morning," I wasn't a big Ice fan, but I had to see. I'm a hip hop head through and through, so I needed to make sure he didn't embarrass us. He wasn't great, by any stretch. Re-watching it all these years later makes it easier to see how uneven he was, really iffy at some parts, but solid toward the end of the movie.

Another 'hood luminary in the cast was little known comedian Chris Rock. He was actually good all the way through. He brought levity to a serious picture, even though his character has some serious stuff going on. He makes it work. For my money, it's still his best movie performance with the possible exception of CB4 and the underrated I Think I Love My Wife. Rock was joined by urban flick blue blood Mario Van Peebles. Ya know, Melvin's li'l boy. Well, the young buck is all grown up and sat in the director's chair on this one.

Regardless of any of those guys or a wonderfully understated yet still crazy Judd Nelson in the cast, the real star of the show is a guy we hardly knew. Wesley Snipes wasn't a tax evader, Blade, or even Passenger 57, yet. He was a guy who'd shown up in a couple Spike Lee joints, including the lead in Jungle Fever. We liked him well enough but weren't exactly clamoring to see him. Still, from the opening scene he lets us know he's not just playing a role, He really is drug kingpin Nino Brown. He's that good. To me, it's one of the most criminally underrated performances in cinematic history. I'll tolerate lots of criticisms about New Jack City. I will not stand for any knocks on what Wesley accomplishes here.

There are certainly legit issues with he movie. The easiest one to spot is that it is so blatantly of the era during which it was made. Back then, the fashions, the hair cuts, the slang, they were all perfect. I, myself, looked like I had just stepped off the set of a Big Daddy Kane video. And I was far from the only one in that crowded theater looking that way. Now, all that stuff is dated. That's not a problem for me, but a source of laughter for younger viewers. Except that, sadly, the hair cuts have made a comeback over the last year or so. Someone please make it stop. There was a reason we old dudes cut them off. We woke up and realized black dudes' hair should not include angles. If you're a youngster who is guilty going retro with your head, pay attention. As simultaneously skillful and artistic as it is of the barber to hook you up with a fresh one of those cuts, it is ridiculous looking. Now, get off my lawn!

Woah! I'm way off track. Where was I?

That's right. New Jack City.

It's taken me many years, but I can finally admit it's not really one of the all time greats. However, it will always be one of my favorites. It connects with me on a level few movies have. Though I've never been directly involved in the crack game, aside from that one time a couple rocks were sold in the back seat of my car...not by me...long story that I'm not telling, I've been around it and affected by both sides of it more times than I care to admit. Aside from that, it takes place in areas I understood growing up. Plus, it combines two of my favorite things by shooting a Scorcese movie through a hip hop filter. It's been said that everyone loves a gangster. Double that love if he has a cool sound track. Oh yeah, I didn't even mentioned that the soundtrack was the number one album in America for a while before the movie even came out and produced a number of hit singles.

You know something? I could go on forever about New Jack City and feel like I already have. I'll just wrap it up by saying this is a film that belongs to me.

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