Rated R, 123 min. Directed by Leon Ichaso. Starring Wesley Snipes, Michael Wright, Theresa Randle, Ernie Hudson, Abe Vigoda, Steve J. Harris, Clarence Williams III.
Fifteen minutes into this film, you suddenly realize you don't dare blink for fear of missing a gorgeous shot. Director of photography Bojan Bazelli and production designer Michael Helmy apparently had their work cut out for them, but their efforts pay off big time: Sugar Hill is arguably the most beautiful-looking crime drama since Coppola's Godfather, Part II. Forsaking the glitz and over-the-top grittiness of New Jack City and other recent NYC gangster films, director Ichaso instead opts for the lush, burnished earth-tones of the Corleone clan. It's a dark, rich film, and its lengthy running time of over two hours glides by with only a few annoying snags. Ichaso's storyline may at first seem like a bedrock cliché: two young brothers (Snipes, Wright) in the City's heroin trade in conflict with their Mob suppliers, each other, and the seeming intractability of their destinies on the cold Harlem streets (the film even opens with a flashback to a parent's drug-related death, a la Menace II Society, Deep Cover, and countless others). If that sounds familiar, it should. Thankfully, though, Ichaso fails to take the easy way out and instead trusts his actors to go the distance with fully nuanced performances and piles of emotional backstory. Snipes, who plays younger brother Romello, makes a clean break from what was quickly becoming his trademark guns-and-explosions role, and turns in his best performance to date. Romello's made his fortune on the street; his suits are Versace and Armani, his apartment is seriously high-end, and his finances are secure. It's obvious, though, that he realizes he's in a (literally) dead-end job, and, unlike his jittery, emotionally combustible brother Raynathan, he can't help but smell the prickly odor of cordite and blood in his future. He wants out, desperately, but mobster Gus (Vigoda, in a chillingly far cry from his Barney Miller days) and the streets, may not let him go. It's a surprise, a nice one, that Snipes is as good as he is here. Having only seen his actioners of late, I didn't really think he had it in him to realize such a complex role, but he does, excellently. The rest of the cast – Clarence Williams III as the brother's burned out, junkie father; Hudson as Lollo, the new thug on the block; and Randle as Romello's burgeoning love Melissa – are all rock-solid as well. Towards the end of the film, Ichaso stumbles a bit, and the melodrama threatens to overpower the story, but I'm inclined to forgive him these sins of Hollywood commission. Up to that point, Sugar Hill is a complex, powerful, and thoroughly engaging ride.
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