A self-indulgent drama about a Harlem drug kingpin trying to go straight, “Sugar Hill” plays like a dreary variation on “New Jack City.” Heavy on simplistic psychology and light on plausibility, pic exists in a netherworld between art and action films that makes it the least commercially viable Wesley Snipes entry since he hit the big time. Not skedded for domestic release until January, it is premiering at the Montreal Film Festival.
Riddled with flashbacks, script by former journalist and “New Jack City” co-writer Barry Michael Cooper tells of two brothers with giant chips on their shoulders. Because they witnessed their mother overdose and their addict father get shot virtually to death by white mobsters, Roemello and Raynathan Skuggs (Snipes and Michael Wright) long ago decided to get their own back by becoming the biggest dealers in Harlem.
But while Raynathan remains an ambitious hothead, Roemello, who has all the worldly possessions he could desire, has become bored and wants out. But, natch, that’s easier said than done, since the old-time mafia hoods in the hood have brought in new blood from Brooklyn to muscle in on the local action.
When not brooding about his future in lonely luxury, Roemello persistently courts the beautiful young Melissa (Theresa Randle), a proper lady who wants nothing more to do with him when she discovers his metier, but who can’t ignore him either. It all ends in predictably bloody violence, but with a particularly sappy and unbelievable coda that seems tacked on to relieve what would otherwise have been total grimness.
Best known for his 1985 indie musical “Crossover Dreams,” director Leon Ichaso opts for a very straightforward presentational approach utterly lacking in dynamics and excitement. Staging is very conventional and dialogue scenes are lethargically paced, which, combined with unnecessary and protracted scenes, results in a tiresomely long picture. In particular, the final reels are filled with digressions when they should build to a streamlined climax.
Looking just too cool in his expensive threads and elegant Jaguar, Snipes invests little energy in his performance until the end, when the urgency of his situation seems to wake him up. As his brother, Wright is mostly called upon to deliver hysterical, violence-threatening tirades, which grow tiresome after awhile. Randle is lovely in a standard role, and Abe Vigoda is a welcome presence as a veteran lieutenant whom the mob posted in Harlem decades before.
Tech contributions are fine, distinguished by Bojan Bazelli’s well-defined lensing and Terence Blanchard’s moody jazz score.
Designed to show the drug trade as a dead-end, no-win field, pic is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but territory is so familiar by now that some new angles are needed to command viewer attention. “Sugar Hill” provides too little in the way of either insight or excitement.