'Sugar Hill' offered Snipes just the gritty role he had been seeking

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

Washington -- Well, he admits, there were some on his team that weren't too crazy about him playing another drug dealer.

"But I wanted to act," says Wesley Snipes, who went ahead and committed to "Sugar Hill," the complex "Godfather"-like drama of a dealer's withdrawal and redemption.

Snipes, in person, is a lean, wily presence, whose eyes are even more intensely riveting than they are on screen. Rare among movie stars, he's not a disappointment in the flesh; he's no little man with a big head, plated teeth, bad breath and bad clothes that only a close-up camera could love. He looks just as whip-crack quick in a room as he does on a screen.

"Some of my people said this wasn't 'commercial,' " he explains. "I was thinking, like, if this isn't commercial, change the standards. This can be a grand movie and people will go to it, or they'll just get more 'Demolition Mans' or 'Die Hards.' It's just as entertaining. You come out feeling like you've done something," he adds with a characteristic snort, a reflex of his that seems to say, how could they be so stupid?

"I'd been playing too many soft characters. I was starting to phone it in. This one was really gritty and gave me lots of textures to play with."

"We wanted it to be a classic," Snipes continues. "Whatever, you can't say this is a blood and guts movie, just another shoot-'em-up."

Asked if he's worried some in the audience won't see the pain that his character's lifestyle brings with it, but only the slick cars, sleek guns and beautiful women, Snipes responded, "That's a concern, to a degree, yes. But I think if people see the movie more than once, the messages will come out. We want to get people thinking, and if they think about it, they'll see what the lifestyle can lead to."

But . . . the rub is the ending. For a second it appears "Sugar Hill" is going to finish on a note of spiritual desolation so overwhelming it sends you home in a funk. Then, after what seems to be 10 seconds in blackout, it segues into a more positive, feel-happy kind of thing. Everything about it screams, "Bad cards from the preview audience!"

Snipes acknowledges that the original ending was considerably different and considerably more depressing. "But flags went up. The way we end it now is not my preference. But the movie was taking people down and down and down," he says. "You've got to give people something to believe in, that's all."

Snipes has emerged in the past few years as a dynamic performer, moving swiftly from glossy character roles -- as in the first "Major League" -- to starring roles in routine action fare such as "Passenger 57" and "Demolition Man," to more serious work with Spike Lee ("Jungle Fever," "Mo' Better Blues"). Recently, he even shared the screen with aging dinosaur Sean Connery in "Rising Sun." He did very well against the charismatic Connery too.

But in "Sugar Hill," he gets to show a part of himself that's never been seen before. His Roemello Skuggs may be a dope dealer, but he's a family kind of guy, who cares deeply for his hotheaded and not so intelligent brother, for his bitter father and for the new woman in his life. Where does it come from?

"I get that part of my character out of some experiences I have felt and some by my friends. You remember them and bring them to the screen. I'm an empirical type of actor. I record things and they emerge. Sometimes I'm just as surprised as everyone else."

He says of Roemello, "It's so different from myself. This character has much more intensity and complexity. If you just check him out on the surface, you won't get it. It's like he's two men: the man who takes care of business and the man underneath."

Snipes says he is stunned by the response to his work. For example, in "The Water Dance" he played an embittered paraplegic to brilliant reviews, which still baffle him.

"It was the easiest movie I ever did," he says with a scoff. "I just sat in that chair."

And he's one of the few actors who'll criticize films he's been in. Asked about "Demolition Man," the over-the-top mega-violent film about an evil 20th century criminal who is deposited in the peaceful 23rd century and proceeds to terrorize it, he says, "Let's just say I'm more proud of 'Sugar Hill' than I am of 'Demolition Man.'"

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