'Sugar Hill' invites too many comparisons with 'The Godfather'

February 25, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In its every frame, "Sugar Hill" yearns to be a crime classic, a melancholy elegy on the theme of the gangster who wants out.

It's built around an exquisitely controlled performance by Wesley Snipes as Roemello Skuggs, the brilliant son of a Harlem junkie who opted out of a prep school to take over and make a success of the family business, which happens to be selling narcotics.

You may have some trouble with a story that demands that you perceive a big-time dope dealer as a tragic figure, and invites you to invest in his soul-deep sadness, and further insists that you connect with his need to get away with his considerable millions to live a life of luxury on a plantation in South Carolina. I know I do.

But Snipes' performance is so rich and human it may get you beyond that. Unlike so many films set in the same milieu, it gives us this character full and examines the forces that created him. When he was 10, he watched his own mother overdose; a terrible, terrible scene that the director Leon Ichaso stages in full documentary rawness. Then, later, Roemello watches as his father is crippled by the Mafia, which is secretly supplying Harlem with heroin, turning that man into a bitter cripple.

Roemello, being smart (smarter than his older brother Raynathan), attacks the system and has his vengeance by making it his system: Thus, in his 30s, against the ruin of Harlem, we see him as elegant and sophisticated, a man comfortable in $500 slippers and $1,200 smoking jackets. He moves through the city like a leopard, a sleek prince of all he commands. And he's a man of some fierce integrity, devoted to family (he still supports his father, and he tries to advise the hot-tempered Raynathan), and worried about too many guns and too many young punks.

Then, simultaneously, two things happen. First, he falls in love with a beautiful young woman (Therese Randle). The second is that the Mafia, his quiet sponsors, bring in a new mobster to share the territory. Rom knows then it's time to get out. He's no fool: He can read what's on the wall. But Raynathan (Michael Wright) can't see it; he begins a war, which Roemello has to deal with.

Of course, too many in the audience will see the way themes from "The Godfather" have been mulched into Barry Michael Cooper's script: We see Al Pacino trying to get out from "III"; we see Sonny's hotheaded course of action from "I" in the fiery Raynathan; we see the coming of Turk Sollazzo from "I" in the form of Ernie Hudson's Lolly; we even see old Abe Vigoda, with that same somber presence and basset hound face that was so vital to the first "Godfather" and appears here as an old Mafioso. He's like an official imprimatur of pedigree.

We also see, in Bojan Bazelli's cinematography, the look of "The Godfather": lush and painterly, with alternating slabs of light and shadow. Bazelli studied Gordon Willis' monumental work in the originals.

In fact, the movie seems to have been inspired by a throwaway line in "Godfather I," a line that has come to haunt black American filmmakers: "In my city, we keep the narcotics among the dark people, the people of color. They have no souls anyway." The movie seems hellbent on rebuking that statement: Yes, it screams, we have souls too.

But however desperately Snipes, Ichaso and Cooper may want to achieve the intensity and majesty of the original model, they fall short. They seem to miss the elemental truth that Don Corleone defined himself as against drugs -- that's what set off the war that haunted "The Godfathers" -- while Snipes' Roemello has become what he so despised. So it's extremely difficult to extend to him the empathy that went to the Don, who was a clean" criminal standing against the unclean.

But it also lacks "The Godfather's" ferocious narrative drive. Coppola's films roared along, beautiful and driven, among the greatest of American movies. It's as if in remembering them, the filmmakers here recall and replicate the high moments without conjuring up the lower moments of narrative sinew that kept "The Godfather" together. Theirs is all muscle. It's full of raw emotion and grand scenes -- Cooper writes superb dialogue, and one sequence in which an ex-basketball star becomes sexually abusive to Randle's Melissa Holly could be a one-act play it's so exquisitely managed -- but it has a sense of stillness to it. Nothing really connects; it's not fluid and roaring but a collection of set-pieces.

"Sugar Hill"

Starring Wesley Snipes

Directed by Leon Ichaso

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

R-rated

** 1/2

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