New Jersey Drive
directed by Nick Cortez
(Gramercy, 1995)

Jason Petty is a small-time hood on a collision course with big trouble. For, despite his brains, good looks and a mom who cares, Petty (Sharron Copley) has cast his lot with the boys from the 'hood, a resourceful bunch who can steal a car faster than most people park one.

It's a good life, and certainly a common one in his native New Jersey, car-theft capital of the United States. It has lots to offer: thrills, chills, challenges, recreational opportunities and disposable income, providing he can dispose of the car before the police dispose of him.

To his friends, it's mostly a game, one in which the winner gets the admiration of his peers and the loser an extended vacation on the city of Newark. But the stakes are suddenly raised when Jason finds himself on the wrong end of a police shooting gallery while cruising with a friend who just happened to steal a police officer's personal vehicle.

From then on, New Jersey Drive assumes a different face -- that of a revenge tragedy in which every little hurt calls for a bigger hurt, done in the rap-heavy, staccato language of the streets.

Even at this level, Nick Cortez, who both wrote and directed New Jersey Drive, has enough going to maintain interest, in part because he speaks fluent "street," in part because he's crafted a visually stunning film that takes the viewer right inside the car thieves' victory donuts and vertigo-inducing car chases.

But Cortez too raises the stakes, pushing New Jersey Drive beyond cops-and-car-thieves to take a long, hard look at white-on-black injustice, black-on-black violence and downright multicultural meanness.

The first of those themes forms the central conflict of Drive, with overachieving officer Emil Roscoe (Saul Stein) all too willing to go to any lengths to catch and punish Petty, or just about anyone, so long as he's young and black.

Stein makes the most of his role: grinning smugly, especially when he's threatening someone; talking tough, usually through clenched white teeth; and hitting below the belt every chance he gets. He's enough to scare anybody straight -- anybody but the boys in the 'hood, that is -- and it's not long before he's turned a bad guys versus good guys film into bad guys versus worse.

But black themes form an essential subtext to the film as well, as Petty tries to keep his younger sister from falling in with the car thieves, only to become the target of their guns. And Petty's mother (Gwen McKee) struggles to find ways to keep her son off the streets when she has so little to offer him and the streets have so much.

New Jersey Drive is far from perfect. Its episodic style -- it often seems more a series of blackouts than a story -- undercuts its narrative thrust. And its ending leaves much unresolved for both Petty and Roscoe. But as a look at life in the streets of our pock-marked cities, as a record of the violence that's tearing apart generations as well as communities, New Jersey Drive has much to say and says it well.

It won't be the last word on the subject, but it's one that ought to be heard.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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