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Revisiting "New Jack City" 21 Years Later; How Well Does It Hold Up?

by Tambay A. Obenson
April 24, 2012 4:14 PM
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new Jack City

Sergio's post just beneath this one, announcing the Blu-ray release of New Jack City got me thinking... now there's a movie that just doesn't hold up 21 years later! Although some would say that it didn't "hold up" during the year of its release! 

Watching the 1991 film again today, I find myself laughing more often than not, even when there isn't supposed to be any humor.

But ahhh, I recall being VERY excited to see it during the year of its release 21 years ago, and eventually seeing it, and, I must say, really loving it back then! Although, I was in my mid-teens at the time.

I watch it today, and I'm wondering what exactly I saw in it the first time - what we all saw in it, since it went on to gross almost $50 million, on an $8 million budget; the 26th highest grossing movie of 1991, in a year that saw 345 releases.

How would it be received in 2012? I'd say, not well.

Worth noting is that John Singleton's debut, Boyz N The Hood, was also released that same year - the 23rd highest grossing movie of 1991. It's no wonder then that, with 2 so-called "hood movies" released in the same year (before the term entered the mainstream), earning a combined total of $110 million in box office grosses, life was given to the beginning of that early to mid-1990s period, when "black cinema" was so narrowly defined by similarly themed works.

In actuality, New Jack City was released a good 4 months before Boyz; so maybe the success of New Jack City helped Boyz at the box office. It's fair to say that we seem to credit the success of Boyz for launching the "hood movie" craze that soon followed; but it's possible that New Jack actually deserves that recognition - or at least, part of it!

But... as I stated, whatever appeal it had for me in 1991 simply no longer exists; certainly not as strongly as it initially. I guess it was just one of those films that came along at the right time, when we were hungry for that kind of content - during a time (1980s through 1990s) when drug usage and the so-called war on drugs were particularly fashionable.

The film is so cliche-filled (taking into consideration the fact that I'm watching it 21 years later); the acting is terrible in some parts; although, I'd say that I think Chris Rock's performance as a crackhead turned police informant is probably some of his best work ever! Seriously!

The snappy one-liners just sound really corny now, although they were probably GOLD back then.

The film plays almost like a 100-minute music video - the shallow portrayals of women, the cars, the bling, the machismo, the guns, the violence, and of course, the music; you can't forget about that soundtrack! I almost spit out the water in my mouth when Teddy Riley and the rest of group, Guy (remember them), were introduced in a night club scene, after which they performed New Jack City; Or when Keith Sweat (remember him) belted out several notes in a later sequence.

I'd forgotten so many moments from the movie, that seeing them all again was certainly amusing, but fondly so; because I remember the spirit of the times in which the film was made and released.

Also worth noting is Traci Camilla Johns (in what would be her last role, until recently anyway), as Uniqua, the stripper. She gets naked once or twice, and has quite a sex scene with Wesley Snipes' Nino Brown drug kingpin - reminiscent of her work in She's Gotta Have It. I do remember wondering back then, why 5 years after her starring role in Spike's debut, she wasn't doing more *interesting* work, instead of having to play a bit part as a stripper who gets tossed around a bit in New Jack.

I did wonder what the precedent for the movie was, as it plays essentially like a much more polished blaxploitation movie, updated for the 1990s; or even a blaxploitation spoof.

All that said, Mario Van Peebles should still be given some credit for attempting to make an anti-drug movie - one that was also entertaining - given the period during which it was made, even though the delivery is often too deliberate, and I'd argue that it instead glorifies the lifestyle, more than it derides it.

It also helped launch Wesley Snipes's career as an action movie star, with Passenger 57 released about a year after.

I am surprised that there wasn't a sequel, given how successful it was.

How about you? New Jack City memories? Current reactions if you've watched it again recently?

Here's its trailer as a refresher ("Rock-a-bye-baby"): 

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  • Gee | June 30, 2014 6:31 PMReply

    All you people saying NIC is was supposed to be dated. The movie setting was 5 to 6 Years earlier. It was dated for like 1985. Anyway...New Jack was a good movie then and its a good movie now. I liked it a lot more than I did Boyz. I will admit that Ice T's performance wasn't very good....But Wesley, Allen and Chris put in some phenomenal work.

  • mario | February 5, 2014 12:14 AMReply

    Really bad script. Awful direction. Lots of potential wasted.

  • TL | January 12, 2014 11:04 PMReply

    Classic movie. Period. Watching it now on Encore.

  • mark | February 24, 2013 12:47 AMReply

    I think its a great movie did then do now actually watching it right now i think it helped show people some of what was and still is happening in the hood . Thanks mario.

  • Jeff Wilder | February 2, 2013 11:50 AMReply

    No, New Jack City has not aged well. The fashions and some of the music choices date it, some of the dialogue is awful ("I wanna shoot you so bad my d***'s hard") and the anti-drug pontificating can get annoying. It's also not as iconic as Scarface or as well-written as The Untouchables. Bill Duke's Deep Cover, which came out about a year later, is better made and holds up a lot better even if it isn't as well-remembered.

    On the other hand it's still possible to enjoy NJC in a non-kitschy way even if some of the luster has faded. Wesley Snipes is fantastic as Nino Brown. I would also put it slightly ahead of the aforementioned Untouchables in one area: providing an understandable motivation for the good guy. Here it's revealed that Ice-T has a largely personal motivation for wanting to take Nino down. In the Untouchables Kevin Costner wanted to take down Capone mainly because it was his job (although personal factors did enter in to it as the story went on). Finally, New Jack Hustler still kicks a**.

  • LeonRaymond | April 30, 2012 10:17 AMReply

    George Jackson: one of the producers on the project, seriously smart business man and brief Mentor to me, They did try to mount a Sequel, tried very hard, but cast problems, trying to get the right script, Wesley was in another mindset by then also and the studios taste had changed dramatically, and George was one of those guys who had an Ivy League degree, would not bow down when the studio would ask "can we have the White Cop, Kill all the of the criminals in the sequel" and there were even more problems than to mention, but George would have done it had they put the funding in place as quick, God Rest his soul, he was an awesome person.!!!!

  • Samuel | April 30, 2012 9:02 AMReply

    I wish I could say New Jack City held up back when it came out. The good: Chris Rock's Oscar worthy performance, Wesley as one of the coolest bad guys and Uniqua. When we remember the good we completely overlook the biggest issue in the story: the movie is about these annoying New Jack cops. The movie started off being Scarface then it became the Untouchables 5 minutes into the film.

    Notice how no one has yet to talk about Ice-T's performance, when he's the lead or his partner Judd Nelson. And it's not just that Wesley stole the movie, the cop stuff sucked, which was a good portion of the movie. That's too much bad to say New Jack City was a good movie.

  • ChgoSista | April 26, 2012 10:01 PMReply

    Don't care what ANY of you say: "SIT yo $5 ass down before I make change" is [BLEEPIN'] GOLDEN! ;-)

  • JMac | April 25, 2012 9:26 PMReply

    Haven't watched it recently but it had impact then and holds some impact now unlike a few other movies in the era that were supposed to have been better and more "relevant" - ie, Colors. It is a hit classic. Everybody (black) can quote lines or remember scenes in that movie where, up until then, no one had ever witnessed on film. I think Pacino's Scarface is much more outdated than NJC but negroes still flock to that mess. Music was great - ColorMeBadd singing "I'm gonna sex you up." Could care less if it seemed like a video with all the music... so was Oh Brother Where Art Thou (saw last night). It blew our pre-teen minds to see the inside of a crackhouse (hell, a crack apartment building WTF!!) where workers had to work butt naked; and realizing that those smooth, educated sisters/brothers doing "good" in the neighborhood were in the drug trade up to their necks; and Nino Brown's ass being so cold and selfish he'd kill his brother and then sit up in the courtroom and call out co-conspirators openly - 'If I'm going down, I'm gonna take all ya'll with me' was a foreign concept to us. After that movie, everybody said that and did it. Forget the no-snitch rule. Had the eye candy for the men and the women - Russell Wong, Christopher Williams, woooooo!!! Judd Nelson doing his I'm a black man stuck in a white man's body act. Ice T being Ice T: 'This ain't business, this's personal.' Bill Cobbs getting his moment in the sun by killing Nino. Can't forget Chris Rock - he shocked everybody. Anyone else agree that TP lifted the ending of NJC to put in Daddy's Little Girl - just making it more family friendly? Damn. Now I've got to watch NJC.

  • George | April 25, 2012 6:02 PMReply
    Above in a recent article Mario Van Peebles mentions why this movie still has some relevancy. Below is excerpt from the article:

    Mario Van Peebles: Yeah, unfortunately. But I think you have to understand that it comes up in The Godfather. You have to think, “As long as the drugs are in the low-income communities, we’re OK. We can medicate those communities.” That’s a very cynical way to look at it. But you have to understand that we don’t have poppy skills in America, and we don’t have gun-manufacturing plants. All you have to do is say, “Follow the money. A 13-year-old boy can find a drug dealer. Why can’t the cops?” Once you follow the money, you go, “Oh, wow, there’s big money in this.” And once there’s big money in this, then there’s big connections, and there’s no way, logistically, you can get this stuff moved in here without the OK of certain officials – not all officials. Some folks are doing the right thing, but other folks will turn the other way and do the wrong thing.

    It’s like prohibition. You have to ask yourself bigger questions. “Are we better off legalizing and then taking the money and taxing and regulating and educating? Or are we better off continuing to fight a legal battle?” And when you’re fighting it and saying that it’s illegal, you’re creating a monetary value to it that is not proportionate to what it costs to make. It’s not economics anymore. It’s like, “Why do I buy this chair? I want this chair, but the chair is made of wood. So the price of it in the open market includes the labor it took to make it, plus the products and materials it took to make it, and then what you get on the open market. When you suddenly make something illegal, you’ve increased its value and then you put profits in it because it’s illegal. Sometimes, if you take away the profit, you’re able to regulate it differently. As Wesley Snipes said in New Jack City, “It’s not me. It’s bigger than me. I’m going to go to jail and whatever, but there’ll be more of it around, until you understand it differently.” So, yes, it’s unfortunately very similar. You can go to any big city in America, go to any low-income area in that city, be it white, Hispanic or black, and find drugs.

  • Donella | April 25, 2012 1:54 PMReply

    This movie is so quotable. "Rock-a-bye baby" is probably my favorite line in the whole movie. I agree that NJC had an impact on pop culture. That and King of New York.

  • Jayson Jay | April 25, 2012 10:19 AMReply

    It's a classic. I love it because it entertains me much like Boomerang this does.

  • Cherish | April 25, 2012 9:48 AMReply

    Wow, were most movie trailers that bad in those days? I don't remember, never paid much attention to them back then Today they are so much more sophisticated. But yeah, the movie is dated, and a little gimmicky. But its still a classic and I love it too.

  • Negro Please | April 25, 2012 12:11 AMReply

    This film is a classic. I loved it, and still do.

  • Lonny | April 24, 2012 10:20 PMReply

    I still feel the same way as I did as a kid so it's still holds up as it's attached to nostalgic memories. The lines were always laughable, which is what made it fun to quote (:think of the "Martin" episode") . It highlights a late 80's into 90's look style wise and slang wise.

    "Sugar Hill" and "Jason's Lyric (which are thematically ...plot wise..the same movie) might've done more for the brotherhood explored with black people on film, but "Am I my brother's keeper" is everything it ever was.

    It's like a music video , as mentioned. It's also like a video game that we're watching being played on story mode. It's fun.

    Can we discuss Allen Payne's career? It seemed like it'd go differently. He was a big draw to the film for me.
    True he has a Tyler Perry show in his namesake, but..... I don't know. Did Terrence Howard get all his potential roles post 2001?
    (Michael Ealy is set to get Terrence Howard's...)

  • And | April 29, 2012 11:48 AM

    Eh, Payne was never the best actor; his being pretty doesn't automatically put him on Howard or Ealy's level. If anyone stole his career, it's someone like LL Cool J.

  • Neziah | April 24, 2012 9:33 PMReply

    It's dated, but still provides some decent entertainment for those charmed by these types of over-the-top crime/hood films, such as myself.

  • Bobby Tee | April 24, 2012 9:20 PMReply

    It's a little lazy to look at the catchphrases of 'NJC' as a judge of how it has held up over more than 20 years later. As a lot of the observant commenters noted below, the impact that this movie has had on pop culture alone solidifies its place in the realms of film history.

    I mean, Lil Wayne's record label and all of his albums are taken from this very movie. And that's just a small slice of the population of artists and consumers alike who hold this film in high regard.

    ...just my thoughts.

  • misha | April 24, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    I hear you, Tambay. Compared to Boyz, New Jack doesn't hold up all that well. But I still enjoy it nonetheless.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | April 24, 2012 8:09 PMReply

    When G-Money jumps in the Jeep with Nino on the Zach Morris brick-phone and Da-Da-Da Man laughing -- classic.

  • james evans from the cabrini-green projects | April 24, 2012 7:44 PMReply

    As you astutely put, it did not "hold up well" the year it came out. However, audiences still have great affection for this b-list-movie (as do I), probably for the nostalgia factor alone ('91 was a great year for lovers of hip hop). NJC will go down in history as one of those highly-prolific Black movies we all love but was never really that great to begin with, like "Waiting To Exhale" (love to Whitney and Angela, but sorry, somebody had to say it) and most of Spike's "joints".

  • Dankwa Brooks | April 24, 2012 5:55 PMReply

    I agree with pretty much everything Tambay said, but I still LOVE IT!

     I disagree with him about Chris Rock though NJC was his BEST onscreen performance. Eddie Murphy is the worthy successor to Richard Pryor in comedy & movies, Chris Rock got the comedy on lock, but...

    Anyway, I rewatched it last year and still loved every minute. The long music video is apropos, but it's still fun especially the bravura performance of Mr. Wesley Snipes. 

    Ice-T was pretty decent too for his first role. The acting as a whole is not stellar, but it is what it is. 

    I feel Tambay on something losing its resonance. I used to love 'Scarface', but not so much anymore. I won't be one of the ones buying the newly released BluRay. I think I've gotten bourgeoise. LOL.

  • ron jones | April 24, 2012 5:25 PMReply

    I get your point, but you can't put such a revisionist spin on a flick that was made as a time capsule for that era. Most of the movies I watch now, that I saw over a decade a go seem corny by todays standards, but that's because most movies build on the earlier ones. This movie was classic and still is...

  • Donella | April 25, 2012 1:56 PM

    I play it on Youtube now and then and LOL all over. "Lay down!"

  • misha | April 24, 2012 8:17 PM

    Donella, just thinking about that scene in Martin makes me laugh.

  • ron jones | April 24, 2012 7:07 PM

    @Donella, that has to be one of my favorite scenes from the show and one of my favorite lines from the move, the infamous, "Sit yo $5 ass down, before I make change!". Thanks to Darkan and Dankwa, too true

  • Donella | April 24, 2012 6:54 PM

    Martin dragging that stuffed dog around the table still makes me laugh my head off.

  • Darkan | April 24, 2012 6:08 PM

    I also agree with Ron as well but also note that many films that have been made since have actually borrowed certain elements from New Jack City in regards to black and white cinema. No one can say the the rooftop scene with Wesley Snipes was not an awesome and classic scene. Mind you, who can forget when an episode of Martin was a take off of the famous table scene. New Jack City will always be in my collection as it shows how we as a people and filmmakers can take less and make more in regards to budget.

  • Dankwa Brooks | April 24, 2012 5:43 PM

    I agree with Ron

  • Susan Edmond | April 24, 2012 4:32 PMReply

    Check this out....

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