Movie Review: New Jack City

Posted: February 22, 2011 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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New Jack City (1991/Warner Bros./Dir. Mario Van Peebles)

Made in the early nineties, when the crack epidemic was still a thing the media talked about on occasion, this is the story of one inner city drug lord’s rise and fall. So how does this early 90s gangster movie hold up when trying to watch it today? Surprisingly well actually. While some might want to compare this movie to gangster epics like Scarface, The Godfather or Goodfellas, I think there are a few points that separate them. For one thing, this is way shorter, it clocks in at just under two hours while the other films I mentioned hover around three. For another, there is a completely different flavor to this film and for a third… well, let’s talk about the movie, shall we?


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Ooo, a little bottle of broken bits of sea shells. Thanks!

Let’s talk about the major thing that I think keeps this from being thought of as one of the great Mob Epics. Primarily, it’s not really a Mob film. It has more in common with the gangster flicks from the thirties than any of the great mafia stories. The pace is much faster, the story is told from both sides of the law, and there is a roughness that is seldom matched. Another thing that makes New Jack City like the old gangster movies, and one of the things that hurts the movie slightly, is the regular moralizing. There are moments, like in those movies back in the day, where characters explicitly state the greater meaning of the movie.

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Chris Rock is not dealing with the reception to “I Think I Love My Wife” very well.

The short run-time of the movie leaves a little bit to be desired, or perhaps not. While I’m left thinking that the over all film could have afforded to tell just a little bit more story and fill in a few of the gaps, I also keep thinking that anytime you think a movie could go another half hour it means they did something right. There is very little fat in this film, which is always a good thing, even if that sometimes means it feels a little too lean. The over leanness is something of a problem, because you feel like there are parts of the story that are missing. In the end though, the main story is still complete and full, which is always a good thing. It just feels like it could have gone a little longer and developed things a little deeper.

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Frank Miller’s New Jack City

So how else is this unlike an average gangster movie? Well, along with the old school gangster movie feel, it’s also like a European film of the 60s in some ways. It’s shot on location in a way that was already becoming vanishingly rare at the time. New York serves for New York rather than asking Cincinnati, Ohio; Toronto, Canada; or the Lower East Side of Sydney, Australia to fill in. The realism of the urban landscape is shown with both its beauty and its ugliness. The movie has a strong ring of truth and honesty, even though several pieces are heightened for effect. The Dutch angles and color schemes sometimes give the movie a dreamlike quality.

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See guys, if you wear a suit, you get to be the director.

I was actually sort of surprised, when watching this movie to find how well it held up. The weaknesses are obvious. It expects that you’re at least familiar with the violence of the crack epidemic, and that you have at least a working idea of what the inner city might be like, even if you were unaware it was that bad. You might also be expected to have seen a gangster movie or two, since it leans on the idea that you know how these things work. If you don’t know these things, then a lot of the movie seems to rip past leaving you wondering what the hell just happened. However, the movie has so many strengths, that these few weaknesses are easily thrown aside. A lean story, an interesting visual style, realistic characters and actors who are working their asses off to give the movie a verisimilitude rarely seen in drug movies. I still like this one and I think you should maybe get a copy and watch it.

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Must have at least one muzzle flash cap every action movie.

Official Score:
65 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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