Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
While watching New Jack City a few days ago, something was made very clear to me:
In real life, controversy fades gracefully over time into trivia. In pop culture however, it descends awkwardly into self-parody.
In other words, what shocks and appalls us throughout our lives changes as we grow up (and old). A four-year-old might be horrified to see two people kissing, but that same thing would hardly rate a response to an adult. If, as grown-ups, we even remember the various pre-adolescent outrages that plagued us from time to time, it is only as a distant memory eliciting a sigh, or slight chuckle. However, if that same incident was somehow captured on film, and we could see our own in-the-moment reaction to it at the time it happened, it would then be as hilarious to others as it is embarrassing to us. That event would still be irrelevant to us today, but seeing first-hand how relevant it used to be would make it farcical.
Television and film have made this clearer than ever.
Consider The Rolling Stones. This band, when they first came onto the scene, was one of the most controversial acts in the world. They exuded a contempt for authority and convention that enthralled the youth, and terrified the powers-that-be. Their fans became rabid supporters, while their detractors hated them even more passionately (one could argue that Don McLean’s American Pie was nothing more than a twelve minute diatribe against Mick Jagger and the others.)
But while Jack Flash was sitting on a candlestick in the 60s (because fire is the devil’s only friend), he found himself performing as the halftime entertainment of the Super Bowl in 2006. If this doesn’t sound strange enough, consider that football has cracked down on halftime entertainment ever since the disastrous “nipple incident” of a few years back (be sure to remember how big the uproar was over this in twenty years, by the way), and as such, they have only booked “safe” acts since then. The same act that had all network executives sweating bullets just a few years ago, was now seen as the conventional, family-friendly choice.
That’s interesting. But now, go back and see what the hubbub was about, and watch (if you can find it) the Rolling Stones’ infamous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They were not allowed to say “Let’s spend the night together,” and were forced to change it to “Let’s spend some time together.” Everyone was waiting with baited breath to see if Mick would comply. When they performed, Mick DID sing the amended lyrics…but he ROLLED HIS EYES! Can you believe it?
The answer is yes. And the follow-up answer is, “what was the big deal?” Again, the advent of video makes an unintentional mockery of what we once held in awe.
All this brings me to New Jack City.
I did not see this movie when it first came out, but I sure do remember the public reaction to it, at least in my high school. People talked about it all year (it couldn’t have just happened in my town; it was the highest grossing independent movie of the year) and no one could believe how authentic and “real” it was. I remember people being scared as they talked about it.
I, however, saw this movie very recently. Needless to say, my reaction was much MUCH different.
New Jack City, when viewed from the cold light of 2006, is a joke. The film that claims to take a long, honest look at what drugs are REALLY doing to our country comes off today like a period piece. The locations are clearly movie sets, and thus are stripped of any of the authenticity they strove for. The costumes and hairstyles are hopelessly derivative, seen most clearly with director/actor Mario Van Peebles’ getup, which makes him look like something directly out of Purple Rain. (Those outfits and hairdos are used today only to mock the time period, much in the same way that beehives are used to mock the 60s). Most depressingly, the controversial content seems…tame. The fact of the matter is that, in today’s world of Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, Blow, etc., New Jack City does not pack the visceral wallop that it once did. Compared to those movies, it resembles a modern version of Reefer Madness far more than it does a precursor to Traffic.
And let’s not forget the performers. How can you take a movie seriously when it stars:
- Wesley Snipes – while easily giving the best performance in New Jack City, it was nearly impossible for me to see him as anything more than a vampire hunter, or the guy who once uttered “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue…an address that changes all the rules.” Add to that his starring role in To Wong Foo, and his performance, while great, loses some of its edge.
- Chris Rock – the emotional heart of the movie centers around Rock’s character: a crack addict who gets clean, goes undercover for the police, and eventually falls off the wagon with disastrous results. He was a good casting choice at the time, being talented, relatively unknown and with a unique look. Unfortunately, his career trajectory took him to a place where he just doesn’t belong there. Now, he’s the guy from Saturday Night Live, Head of State, Pootie Tang, and Madagascar. He even has a sitcom based on his childhood on TV. He’s a comic actor and a media darling in the 21st century, and as such, he sticks out like a sore thumb in New Jack City.
- Judd Nelson – As a badass. We might…MIGHT…have bought this right after the Breakfast Club came out (not me , but maybe you would have.) Now however, whether you see him as a “former Brat-Packer,” or “That guy from Suddenly Susan,” he gets funnier the more serious he tries to become.
With all this, there's hardly any time at all to pay attention to the plot! Which is probably a good thing, since, while it may have been unique and original in 1991, the story today plays out as incredibly hackneyed and predictable. Snipes' Nino Brown discovers crack, and in a few short years creates a drug empire in Los Angeles. On the other side of the law, Peebles enlists the help of two renegade cops to go undercover and take Snipes down. The good guys try using a former junkie to infiltrate the organization, with telegraphed results. They then send in Ice-T to mix things up, despite the fact that he had spent years on the street as a Narc. I know what you're thinking: there's no way anyone would recognize him. (I won't tell you what happens at the very moment when a crucial drug deal is about to go down, but suffice it to say, this minor plot point does come back around…). Lastly, and most obviously, a woman enters into the story as the girlfriend of Snipes' brother, who obviously has a thing for Snipes himself. I don't want to give it away, but this leads to problems down the road.
At the end of the movie, no one is satisfied. Nino Brown's empire is broken up, but not so that someone else won't immediately swoop in and claim it. The cops learn that all their efforts were essentially in vain, and that an old man with a chip on his shoulder is far more effective than they are. And the audience sits through a subtitled end sequence that shows them that they have just watched a 90-minute after-school-special.
The point here is that no matter how hard-hitting and cutting-edge New Jack City was when it was first released, its legacy was doomed right from the start. That's the reality of the situation, but what you do with it is up to you. If you remember this film as a powerful and gut-wrenching statement about what drugs do to a city and its people, then let it remain that way in your memory, and never attempt to see it again. Because if you do, more likely than not, what you see will alter your opinion of the movie and your memories of it.
Some things should truly be left to posterity.