“It’s always business, never personal.”
Wesley Snipes’ Nino Brown exclaims in proud exclamation, as if his own catchphrase in his biographical film, mimicking the swagger of Al Pachino’s Scarface, a video of which he watches on repeat throughout the film. Though his identity and loyalties are confused, pictured riding through the New York City streets with his friends in a 4×4 convertible one minute, before playing the role of a megalomaniacal drug kingpin the next. He’s an interesting contradiction with a character lying somewhere in between the despicable ruthlessness of Al Pachino’s iconic character and Vin Diesel’s Fast & Furious, Dom Toretto, where family and trust (and BBQ’s) come first.
Documenting the drug kingpin’s ascent to power, New Jack City tracks the Cash Money Brothers (CMB) pushing crack-cocaine’s lucrative potential to the hopeless people of New York in the late 1980s. Simultaneously we follow the eccentrically dressed undercover cop Scotty Appleton, played by rapper Ice-T, and his maverick partner Nick Peretti as they hunt to take the CMB down, using drug-pusher and addict ‘Pookie’ as a mole in order to do so.
Adopted by Bryan and Ronald Williams in the creation of their record label Cash Money Records, home to artists such as Drake, Lil’ Wayne, and Nicki Minaj, the influence of New Jack City reaches far and wide and would inspire rap-music particularly for decades following its release. Influencing the music of Jay-Z & 50 Cent particularly, it is the films striking visual style and own sense of urgent energy that makes it so iconic, dripping with a gothic identity that makes Snipes’ anti-hero into something of a vampiric monster.
With a large boardroom, seemingly alight with the flames of the dozen candles stood on various levels around the room and the large oak chairs that line the central table, Nino Brown’s headquarters reflect his own parasitic attitudes and sinister motives. Identified by co-screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper, who wrote the script with Thomas Lee Wright, Cooper stated: “What Nino is doing to his community is vampiric as he’s sucking the blood out of his people, only via crack. We wanted where he lived – from the furniture to the candles – to show he was a monster just like Dracula.”. The style is comic book-esque, similar to that of the pulpy underworld of Judge Dredd, from the shadowy boardroom to the bright neon lights and bulging exterior decoration of the ‘Spotlite’ club.
This exaggerated style perfectly accommodates the outlandish characters of New Jack City, including Nino Brown’s stuttering right-hand man, rather inappropriately credited as the ‘Duh Duh Duh man’, Chris Rock’s unstable, excitable Pookie, and Nick Peretti Ice-T’s spikey-haired, short-fused partner, played by Judd Nelson from Breakfast Club fame. Such genuinely loveable characters elevate the material, turning the final shootout conclusion into something far more impactful and much more than your standard run-and-gun shlock. Each character plays their part in painting a portrait of the drug culture that exposes its every flaw, downfall, and moralistic horror. From the manufacture to the selling to the recreational use of crack cocaine, in particular, the damage of the drugs trade is righteously highlighted and to great effect, whilst the film simultaneously ticks over a highly enjoyable crime-thriller.
Fuelled by a pumping soundtrack that chugs the film along its own fateful tracks, New Jack City ends up as a moral lesson and character study of Nino Brown, following the rise and fall of a once admired man. Propelling his career forward into bright success, this remains one of Wesley Snipes’ most impressive roles in a film that would help spark the commercial and critical success of Boyz N The Hood, Juice, and South Central a few years later. Though, unlike those films, there is something particular about New Jack City that makes it so special, its unabashed deconstruction of the drugs trade, eccentric identity, and lyrical dialogue. It’s all exemplified by the film’s final line and joyous exclamation mark:
“Idolater, your soul is required in hell.”