The year is 1986 and a new crime lord is on the rise: he is Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes), and has big plans which include killing off his rivals by say, dropping them off a bridge. Meanwhile, Scotty Appleton (Ice-T) is an undercover cop with stronger ties to Brown than he realises, but today he is the victim of theft when the bag of cash he is carrying is stolen by Pookie (Chris Rock). Scotty chases after him as the small time criminal steals a bicycle, but a close encounter with a train sees him flung over the handlebars and having to continue his escape on foot, which proves difficult when Scotty shoots him in one heel. The backup arrives and as the passersby help themselves to the money strewn around, Scotty attempts to prevent the mounting chaos. But it's the widespread drug problem that really needs containing, and it doesn't look as if it's going away any time soon...
When New Jack City was released it was accused in some quarters of glamourising violence and crime by depicting the criminals in the context of a flashy thriller. Eyebrows were also raised when Ice-T was cast as a policeman considering he had never made it plain he was a fan of the police, but here I guess he didn't mind as he was a maverick cop who played by his own rules, and never wore his uniform anyway. The film, scripted by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper from Wright's story, was a runaway success and by far the most exciting of the new wave of African American movies being released in the late eighties and early nineties, probably because although it was a work with a social conscience, it made sure to include action, thrills and suspense as well, reminiscent of the blaxploitation genre of the nineteen seventies.
What Nino has in mind is introducing crack to the streets of New York in a major way, and he goes about it with a keen business sense coupled with a ruthlessness that has any other potential opponents murdered - Snipes is undeniably dynamic in the role that secured his place as a star of the decade. Nino also takes over a housing block to turn into his own personal fortress and factory, where the crack rolls off the production line without any danger of being interrupted. Assigned to this case, Scotty knows that he must find a way to get to Nino and he decides some undercover plotting is just right; only he doesn't send himself in there, nope, he sends Pookie who has now broken his drug addiction and is willing to act as a worker in the crack factory while wearing a microphone and a belt with a hidden camera in it.
Unfortunately, the proximity of all that crack sends Pookie back into his drugs hell, and he is found out - that wasn't a very good plan, Scotty, was it? You could say that New Jack City was awash with clichés, from the bomb that is defused with two seconds on the clock to the revelation that Nino killed Scotty's mother, but really it shows that the filmmakers are aware of the genre they're working in and know how to use it to their advantage. Eventually Scotty has to infiltrate Nino's empire personally, leading to shootouts and comeuppances, but the anti-drugs stance is clear; nobody would have gone to see the film if it had been a dry, patronising public information announcement so to dress it up with the gangster conventions (James Cagney and George Raft are mentioned, and of course Scarface is showing at Nino's apartment) is clever and effective. Not that it did much good in the long run, but you can't fault them for trying. Music by Vassal Benford and Michael Colombier.