NEW YORK — AS charged by some critics and commentators, ``New Jack City'' is a deplorably violent film. Its story of thick-skinned cops and ruthless crack merchants in a Manhattan ghetto builds to a climax in which an extraordinary number of convulsive deaths are inflicted in a remarkably short period of time, with all the bloody realism that high-tech special effects can provide. It would be simplistic, though, to assert a one-to-one relationship between the on-screen mayhem of ``New Jack City'' and the real-life violence that has broken out at some places where it was being shown. The largest such incident appears to have erupted among people who didn't see the film at all, but were closed out of an oversold screening. Unless one surmises that the title alone was enough to set these riots off, it seems likely that the content of the picture is less to blame than the mere fact o f many belligerent people converging at a single place and time - suggesting a need for crowd control, not censorship.
Also complicating the situation is the positive side of the movie's message to its audience. ``New Jack City'' contains the most aggressive and forthright antidrug statement I've seen in a Hollywood film, condemning crack and similar substances for their devastating and even genocidal effect on the African-American community. It's unfortunate if pandemonium is needed to lure today's jaded young audiences to the box office; but at least there's a much-needed message embedded in the action.
None of this means that violence for its own sake is a good thing in movies, television shows, or anywhere. It's likely that images affect as well as reflect the society that generates them, and today's lurid bouts of havoc and destruction mark the deadend of a trail that's as old as cinema itself, but got a special boost from 1970s mayhemfests like Sam Peckinpah's notorious ``The Wild Bunch,'' which seems to be a direct inspiration for parts of ``New Jack City.''
Like the late Mr. Peckinpah, filmmaker Mario Van Peebles has unquestionable gifts, and the cast he's assembled for ``New Jack City'' reminds us once again how much black talent is available for Hollywood movies that rarely take full advantage of this enormous resource. Hopefully Mr. Van Peebles and such first-rate performers as Wesley Snipes and Ice-T will turn their abilities to projects that address the all-too-real challenges of ghetto life while dodging violence and other cheap thrills that are easy but ultimately pointless to exploit. Black filmmakers like Spike Lee and Charles Burnett have accomplished this brilliantly in recent years, and there's no reason why Van Peebles shouldn't follow in their path, just as his own father - Melvin Van Peebles - helped blaze a trail for them some 20 years ago.