"OK, all together now: Life as a drug kingpin = Bad Idea"
No matter how rough your childhood was, no matter how poor you once were, regardless of how rich and powerful and sexy your drug-fueled ascent makes you... life as a drug kingpin = Bad Idea.The textbook example of this message is, of course, Brian DePalma's Scarface. So impactful was that 1983 film (to say nothing of Al Pacino's blistering performance) that its (rather obvious) themes and messages are still being rehashed nowadays. And in 1994, when Leon Ichaso's Sugar Hill was released, you'd find at least ten mini-Scarfaces a year.
Coming in the midst of Wesley Snipes' mid-90's bout with unpopularity (this was after Demolition Man and White Men Can't Jump but well before Blade) was a litany of forgettable fare; Boiling Point, Drop Zone, To Wong Foo... and Money Train swelled Wesley's resume. Sugar Hill came during this period, and it deserves a little more attention than the others, if only for its well-meaning (albeit painfully familiar) morality tale.
Snipes plays Roemell Skuggs, a feared and respected Harlem drug dealer who aims to "go straight". Standing in his way are his brother, Raynathan, who sees nothing wrong with continuing to live the high life, and local crime boss Gus Molino, who simply wants what's most profitable more his own Abe Vigoda self. It should come as little surprise to learn that it is a woman that sparks Rome's desire to go legit. Because, well, we've seen all of this stuff before.
An overly-familiar plot structure can easily be forgiven if a flick offers something else in return. And while Sugar Hill boasts a hearty collection of excellent performances, those assets are nearly negated by a directorial style that can best be described as...languid.
Scenes run longer than they need to (often), the oh-so-atmospheric jazz score shoots for "old fashioned noir" and ends up as "dentist's office lullaby", and there's an earnest preachiness that implies a depth of screenplay that's simply not there. If you're going to re-tell and oft-told tale, a little efficiency goes a long way.
Complaints aside, there's little to dissuade one from labeling Sugar Hill a perfectly-watchable Cable-Flick Time-Waster. For all its predictability, the screenplay still manages to command the attention, and it's certainly a handsome flick to look at. Snipes does a fine job, though he's easily eclipsed by Michael Wright's impressive turn as Raynathan. As the brothers' hopeless junkie father, Clarence Williams creates a memorably haunted and tragic figure.
Fans of Wesley and those who can't get enough of the old Ill-Fated Kingpin tale will find much to enjoy in Sugar Hill.Others most likely need not apply.