New Jack City (1991)

The used Blu-ray copy of New Jack City I blind-bought includes no fewer than three accompanying music videos among its special features – including one for Color Me Badd’s eternally amusing hit “I Wanna Sex You Up.” I was so taken aback by this emphasis on music video tie-ins that I wondered if the film’s exceptionally well-curated street fashion and R&B soundtrack had been the original inspiration for the term “New Jack Swing.” No, that genre signifier had been around since at least the mid-80s, but my confusion at least points to how much of an MTV-inspired sensory pleasure the film can be from scene to scene – effortlessly oozing hiphop cool in every drastic camera angle and exaggerated cartoon of street-level criminal activity. What makes the film feel so fascinatingly odd is the way those formal surface pleasures actively go to war with the genuinely horrific dramatic content of its crack-epidemic plot. Halfway between a music video and an alarmist D.A.R.E. ad, New Jack City is exhilarating in its tension between framing the power of crack cocaine druglords with the stylized cool of Comic Book Noir movies like Dick Tracy ’90 or Batman ’89 and showing the full horror of their product’s havoc on their community as the nightmare it truly was. The film opens with a sample of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” announcing, “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” to signal both its aesthetic connections with music video filmmaking and its willingness to pummel its audience full-force with its anti-drugs messaging.

Ice-T stars as an undercover cop (dressed up for his rap rock “Cop Killer” phase, long before his eventual Law & Order retirement home) hell-bent on busting Wesley Snipes’s snarling druglord baddy, Nino Brown. The futuristic crack cocaine emporium the cops attempt to bust is even more intricately constructed than the complex operations of The Wire. Nino’s gang, The Cash Money Brothers, have seized an entire housing project tower and retrofitted it into a one-stop-crack-shop, where a customer can purchase, consume, and ride the high of the lethally addictive drug in a single, protected locale. This massive, organized crack-selling operation requires an equally colossal reaction from law enforcement, escalating this small-budget crime story to the unlikely heights of an action blockbuster. Cheesy guitar riffs accompany rogue cop heroics and accentuate grisly images of addicts (literally) hitting rock bottom. Ice-T & his undercover crew chase down their perps with X-treme BMX stunts, and find themselves de-wiring a bomb in a panic seconds before it’s set to blow. The film is less decisive about how heroic or sympathetic its portrayal of their druglord nemeses are supposed to come across. Sure, Snipes is destroying his local community to turn a personal profit, has no qualms with using a small child as a shield in a gunfight, and gives Stacy Keach a run for his money in how to most menacingly eat a banana. At the same time, there’s an undeniable anti-hero cool to the way the film’s music video aesthetic frames the dealers’ power & fashion (which includes a lot of Kangol, gold chains, and velvet track suits). When they rationalize “You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan Era,” it doesn’t exactly erase their trail of dead, but it at least contextualizes their rise to power as an underdog story that’s uncomfortably easy to sympathize with.

With this debut feature as a director, Mario Van Peebles continued to evolve a tradition partly pioneered by his father’s proto-blacksploitation art piece Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song twenty years earlier: using the stylized cool of Black Culture to deliver a clear political message to his own community. There’s some genuine heartfelt concern here about the havoc the 90s crack epidemic was wreaking on black communities across America. He plainly states a plea to address the problem head-on in a textual epilogue that reads, “If we don’t confront this problem realistically – without empty slogans and promises – then drugs will continue to destroy our country.” That destruction is illustrated throughout the film in outright body horror detailing what crack does to its addicts – most notably to a “basehead” named Pookie played by a young, gaunt Chris Rock. Even with that blatant messaging, though, I’m not sure the film’s anti-drugs themes managed to overpower the music video cool of its depictions of profitable street crime. New Jack City has had a huge impact on black pop culture, inspiring the performing names of artists as disparate as the New Orleans-based rap label Cash Money Records, the Atlantan drag queen Nina Bonina Brown, and the ECW-fame pro wrestler New Jack. You can also see its visual sensibilities echoed in other hiphop music video-flavored features like Belly & last year’s remake of SuperFly, which also struggle to deliver a convincing political messaging over the stylized cool of their surface pleasures. Based on the film’s lasting impact among these pop culture descendants, it’s become increasingly clear that its style has overpowered its substance enough to make its drug dealing antagonists out to be admirable anti-heroes rather than the communal menaces they were likely intended to be. Still, the movie itself never shies away from depicting the full, ugly consequences of their brutal rise to power, and that clash between form & content makes for a fascinating watch in the moment.

-Brandon Ledet

Corrupt (1999)

Albert Pyun is one of those under-the-radar schlockteurs of the direct-to-VHS and early-VOD eras who churns out dozens & dozens of low-profile genre pics at an alarming rate without drawing too much attention to himself. Chances are that if you’ve seen an Albert Pyun film it wasn’t on purpose, but rather a statistical inevitability since he’s made so many sci-fi & crime film cheapies that you were bound to stumble into one of them eventually. For instance, I recently picked up a $1 used DVD copy of Pyun’s “urban” crime film Corrupt because it featured New Orleans rapper Silkk the Shocker on the cover, who I couldn’t recall ever having seen in a proper feature film before. I still haven’t. Part of Albert Pyun’s “Urban Trilogy” (alongside the Snoop Dogg vehicles Urban Menace & The Wrecking Crew), Corrupt is indeed Silkk the Shocker’s feature film debut as an actor, but only on a technicality. Shot in early-digital’s cheapo days (and trying to pass off the Czech Republic as New York City), this film is a very slight 69min that just barely holds itself together long enough to qualify as a movie. Silkk The Shocker also fades into the background for long stretches so that his costar, Ice-T, winds up claiming the most screentime (despite being the antagonist). This is an Ice-T movie that Silkk The Shocker just happens to pass through from time to time, but my purchase of the film under a mistaken pretense of what I was getting into is fairly typical to the quantity-over-quality M.O. for Pyun in general, so I was amused by the bait and switch.

While the title might signal that this is a thriller about crooked cops, it turns out Corrupt is the name of Ice-T’s character, not a descriptor of his persona. The controversial-rapper-turned-network-television-star appears here as the exact kind of criminal dirtbag he now pursues weekly as a fictional police detective on Law & Order: SVU. A drug kingpin with a hot temper, Corrupt threatens to implode an ongoing truce between NYC gangs because he cannot leave one particular brother-sister duo in his neighborhood alone – the brother (Silkk the Shocker) because he suspects him of stealing his drugs and the sister (Eva La Dare) because he wants to use his powerful street status to coerce her into bed. Silkk the Shocker occasionally runs across the screen to fire a gun in Ice-T’s general direction but most of Corrupt is concerned with that latter conflict with the sister. This is a shockingly dialogue-heavy picture about sexual coercion & rape in organized street crime, amounting to more of a melodrama than a crime thriller. A few disorienting smash-cut establishing-shot montages attempt to convince the audience that we’re watching a New York story, but most of the film is confined to single-location indoor scenes in the warehouses & diners of Bratislava, so that the film feels like a morbid stage play wherein a gangster abuses his power to manipulate a woman who does not want to sleep with him into bed. It’s a much more somber, wordy picture than you’d expect given its early-digi crime cheapie pedigree, which is the exact kind of expectation vs. reality dissonance that typifies Albert Pyun’s career.

Since the novelty of a Silkk the Shocker movie is minimalized along with the local rapper’s screentime, there are exactly two reasons why anyone should ever seek out Corrupt on purpose. The first is that its DVD (as well as the only version of the film uploaded to YouTube, appropriately) includes an amazingly disrespectful commentary track from Ice-T. Bored in the recording booth, Ice-T mercilessly riffs on the film in an MST3k tradition as if under the (understandable) assumption that no one would ever possibly be listening. He makes fun of the cheapness of Albert Pyun’s catalog in general, and jokes about how he only did a Pyun film because he’s been “blackballed from real movies” (this was before his TV career took off). He even makes fun of the audience for having purchased the DVD in the first place, much less played his commentary track, reasoning “You’re a loser with too much time on your hands.” (Fair point, no lies detected.) On the off chance that you’re actually interested in the production details for Corrupt, he does ease off these self-deprecating bon mots for insights like his complaint that “There was no place to shit” on set, so the crew would have to “hold it in the whole day.” It’s amazing. The second reason the film is potentially worth seeking out is that it features a scene in which Ice-T self-emulates with impossibly cheap CG-fire effects in order to dispose of his enemies (his mechanism for surviving the burns himself being too convoluted to be worth explaining). The image is so cheaply done that it approaches an art-film surreality that gives me hope there are other sublimely absurdist moments awaiting me the next time I accidentally stumble into an Albert Pyun film. It’s still a moment I’d recommend enhancing with Ice-T’s commentary track for peak effectiveness, though.

Since purchasing this film, one of my favorite modern critics (Justin Decloux of Film Trap and the Important Cinema Club podcast) has published an entire book of critical essays exploring the appeal of Albert Pyun as a filmmaker, titled Radioactive Dreams. Maybe after reading that collection I’ll be better equipped in purposefully seeking out Pyun films for pleasure instead of stumbling across them in confusion. One thing will not change though: Corrupt will still hold less value as a Silkk the Shocker vehicle (despite him being featured prominently on the poster) than it does as a showcase for Ice-T – as an actor as well as a raconteur (in his no-fucks-given commentary track) and a rapper (Ice-T songs play almost continually throughout the film with his vocals alarmingly high in the mix). I guess I’m going to have to seek out my Silkk the Shocker fix in his next film credit after Corrupt, Hot Boyz, which was apparently produced & directed by his brother Master P.

-Brandon Ledet