Our review of Sugar Hill (1974) (Blu-ray), published July 22nd, 2015, is also available.
Heroin—it's all in the family
Roemello Skuggs is a man who has everything: luxury apartment, fancy car, designer clothes, and more than enough money to indulge his most outlandish dreams. But buried beneath all that wealth is an awful, seedy truth. His is cash derived from chaos, as the biggest heroin dealer in Harlem. Years ago, Roemello's father ran smack for the local Mafia don. At present, Roemello and his older brother Raynathan are partnered with the Molino crime family, controlling the entire operation. Roemello has recently come to a decision: he wants out of the drug game. He wants to escape the urban jungle of NYC, to take his newfound love Melissa and start a new life far, far away. But he can't turn his back on his family; not his high tempered loose cannon of a brother, or his barely alive drug addict father. But when Lolly, an ex-fighter turned crack dealer from the Bronx, decides to muscle in on the territory, a turf war begins and it will be these loyalties that drag Roemello down, one last time, into the dark, depressing streets of his once vital and proud neighborhood. He will come face to face with the devastation, and the death, that his business has brought to the once majestic Sugar Hill.
The best way to describe Sugar Hill is "overblown." This is a movie that wallows in virtually every cinematic excess imaginable—set design, all jazz musical score, location, scenery-chewing acting—without providing the necessary foundation to make the pomp seem reasonable. This is, in reality, a small story inflated into an attempted urban Greek tragedy or ghetto high opera. The problem is, the larger it pretends to be, the more insignificant it becomes. This is a movie that gets tired in its attempts at keeping up the aura of significance and importance. Sugar Hill fancies itself an African American version of The Godfather, a sweeping epic of lives tangled in the sins of the past and the crimes of the present. And all the Coppolla style trappings are in place: muted color pallete, codes of ethics and honor, a slap dash approach to history within the setting and experience (in this case, Harlem), the brother against brother against rival gang dynamic. We even have Abe "Tessio" Vigoda stepping in as the aged Don. But it's like a crime drama placebo—it's all overtures and no aria. Part of the problem may be in the casting. Aside from Wesley Snipes (who, frankly, looks way too young here) and Clarence Williams III, the rest of the actors don't have the chops to pull off the overtly melodramatic themes. Especially annoying is Michael Wright's interpretation of Raynathan, Roemello's older brother. He is arch and spastic, with line readings that seem to be in direct conflict with the way the character was written on the page. He cannot even swear properly. When a tough urban gangster can't get the word "motherf***er" out of his mouth convincingly, you know you're in for a trying experience.
Sugar Hill would benefit from a more focused, gritty approach, or maybe a less indulgent director. Leon Ichaso has a wonderful eye for detail and artistic composition. His frames are filled with the delicate, deliberate touch of a painter. His background with Michael Mann (in the television series Miami Vice and Crime Story) is evident. But he doesn't have the latter's skill with narrative flow and drive. At two hours, Sugar Hill is far too padded. We could lose a good 15 to 25 minutes and not miss anything significant. Do we really need the scene where Melissa is sexually assaulted by the pro basketball player? Was every minute of Clarence Williams III's monologue about the family's issues with heroin really important? Were Roemello's numerous black and white flashbacks to childhood events anything other than stylistic excuses? Sugar Hill's script is simply rife with examples like these. There is just too much over-plotting and bet hedging. It's not bad enough that Roemello and Raynathan's mother died from a heroin overdose right before their eyes, but then we learn that it was their father who fed her the hot dose. And then they add the fact that Roemello and Ray now knowingly work with the very Mafia types who crippled their father and the intertwined, incestuous plot permutations start to overwhelm the drama. The outer force of conflict (Ernie Hudson's Lolly) fails to add tension or intrigue. Sugar Hill could have been something special. Unfortunately, it's just way too much of not a very good thing.
If there is one saving grace to this otherwise lackluster movie, it is the absolutely stunning anamorphic widescreen transfer provided by 20th Century Fox in its DVD package. Frankly, it is one of the most sumptuous DVD images this reviewer has seen. Presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the negative is pristine—no defects or age flaws. The colors, from muted to vibrant, are vivid and sharp. And for a movie that spends a lot of its time in the dark, foreboding locations of New York, there are no compression defects at all. The blacks are deep and luxurious and the entire optical presentation is a feast for the eyes (if not for the head). Fox, though, lessens the image's impact by providing a standard, very basic Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack that offers nothing interesting in the way of aural tricks. Aside from a trailer (which sells the movie like it's New Jack City's lush cousin) and a featurette that is decidedly highbrow in its approach (but only lasts five minutes), the overall DVD presentation feels inconsequential. That seems appropriate for Sugar Hill, however. Among the pantheon of drug and thug crime syndicate cinema, which ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime, this misfire falls somewhere in the middle. It's too beautiful to be a complete failure, but it's also too minor a story to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this Sugar Hill will only leave a decidedly sour taste in your mouth.
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