It's truly amazing to cast my mind back through the mists of time and remember that Ice-T was once very much 'The Shit'. Before his TV career in NCIS: Wetwang, before his appearance at Wrestlemania IV escorting the Godfather and his Hoes to the ring, even before his series of straight to DVD action film collaborations with 4th rate proto-Boll Albert Pyun Ice-T was a successful hip hop star with a reputation for hard edged but humourously puerile, anti-establishment albums. Following a brief appearance as a DJ in Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo Ice got the taste for celluloid and shortly afterwards would become the first crossover hip hop movie star, setting in motion a trend that would eventually reach its sad nadir when bullet-ridden human colander Fiddy Cent would play himself in the autobiographical, and staggeringly obnoxious, Get Rich or Die Trying. Every rapper and their Dogg may have made the leap from CD to cinema (or more frequently DVD) in the intervening years but back in 1991 Ice T was blazing a trail. Of course it was unlikely at the time that he realised that his path would lead to Frankenpenis (1996) or Leprechaun in the Hood (2000) but in those early days his acting career described quite the arc and he did some decent movies in the early 90s, including a couple of interesting character roles, albeit in the spectacularly unsuccessful and poorly received science fiction movies Johnny Mnemonic and Tank Girl. The character he played in these, and frankly all films, was himself but that just puts him in esteemed company alongside the Shatners and Roger Moore's of the thespian art.
Mario Van Peebles, fresh off directing duties on iconic US TV show 21 Jump Street, made his feature film directorial debut in 1991 opting to follow very much in his father's footsteps. Mario's dad, Melvin Van Peebles, was an actor/director himself and was most famously responsible for Blaxploitation classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, as well as a number of other less successful but equally entertaining crime thrillers. Mario's take on the genre was altogether more glossy, commercial and high profile and was about to launch the career of Ice T as a credible movie presence but also provide breakthrough roles for two more of the USA's higher profile African-American personalities of the following 20 years. Chris Rock's brilliant turn as Pookie, a recovered junky turned informant, launched him into the mainstream of the US entertainment stratosphere. It was a role he would also later revisit to hilarious effect in Keenan Ivory Wayan's Blaxploitation spoof I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and his own brilliant riff on the hip hop music industry, CB4. Rock wasn't the only beneficiary of an appearance in New Jack City. Head villain and all round rotter Nino Brown was depicted by Wesley Snipes in his breakthrough cinematic role.
My memory states quite categorically that New Jack City has its fair share of cool and quotable scenes, enough for a riotous evening in with beer and buddies and, watching it again, they at first seem to have retained their charm. Our introduction to protagonist Scotty Appleton (Ice T) finds him chasing small time crook Pookie (Chris Rock who), pedalling furiously on a BMX, soon comes a cropper in a kids playground. Once accosted hilarious dialogue ensues...
Ice T: "You think you slick, you little punk, blasphemous, dope-fiend bitch! Spit in my face I'm gonna kill you!"
Onlooker 1: "Yo man you fucking that kid up."
Onlooker 2: "He's kicking his monkey ass!"
Even better the whole scene is accompanied by Original Gangster album track New Jack Hustler and Ice T is wearing copious amounts of gold, an outrageously voluminous beanie and bitching black shell suit pants and matching Raiders jacket. What's not to like?
Cut to the projects and a whole raft of rope thick gold necklaces and medallions to make the Beegees not only jealous but postively sick with inadequacy. Here we meet Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his buddies, early in their careers as hustlers but already drenched in gold and dollar sign rings the size of knuckle dusters and cruising the streets in a open top 4x4. Nino's buddies Gee Money proceeds to introduce a vial of crack cocaine, the crux of the plot, and produce cinema's greatest ever put-down of a brother with a speech impediment...
Duh-duh-duh Man: "Yo man, y-y-you know the rules. Us b-brothers don't be getting high."
Gee Money: "Shut the fuck up and drive the car you non-talking bastard."
New Jack City arguably trumps King of New York in the following scene by boasting an amusing cameo from Flavor-Flav as an emcee in Nino's favourite club. Certainly a more fashionable and en vogue presence at the time than Freddie Jackson, although FJ's appearance (playing himself performing at a high society function) in KoNY is more logical and, in context, more impactful. NJC then shits all over itself with a frankly hideous acapella performance by Boyz II Men as a group of tuneful street bums singing for your pleasure and mine around a trashcan and accompanying a montage (YEAH... A MONTAGE....) illustrating the expansion of Nino's crack empire. Ironic really as I'm sure Boyz II Men probably drove hundreds of thousands across the USA in the early 90s to take up smoking base in order to dull the terrifying effects of their banal, omnipresent brand of vanilla R&B.
Now THIS is a montage!
On the whole New Jack City is a fun period piece but it has aged in a lot of ways. At the time of its release it was hailed as a gritty modern gangster tale but today it's just a little bit kitsch, cliched and superficial. However Ice-T's wardrobe is kick-ass throughout, particularly in the hat department, and it's still a lot of fun.