By now there are two incarnations of Wesley Snipes: the badass action superstar (Demolition Man, Passenger 57) and the serious actor (The Waterdance, Mo’ Better Blues). Fans of the former are bound to be disappointed by Sugar Hill, a low-budget Harlem gangster melodrama that offers little in the way of blood-spattered thrills. No crime there: Made independently (it’s being distributed by Twentieth Century Fox), the movie was never intended to be a kinetic crowd pleaser. Yet fans of Snipes the actor may find themselves even more let down by Sugar Hill. Though the movie itself isn’t much — a dawdling inner-city pastiche of Mean Streets and the Godfather films — a couple of the performers do succeed in fleshing out their threadbare roles. Snipes isn’t one of them. As Roemello Skuggs, a suave smack dealer who makes a doomed attempt to get out of the business, he spends the film oscillating between two facial expressions, a cool glower and a guilty glower. Has strutting through all those second-rate action pictures numbed Snipes’ talent? Or was he always, beneath his new-jack flash, this emotionally monochromatic?
Roemello and his older brother, Ray (Michael Wright), grew up in Harlem, where they saw the lives of their parents leached away by dope. Their junkie mother (Khandi Alexander) died of an overdose right in front of them. Their father, A.R. (Clarence Williams III), became a dealer and an addict and was maimed by his mob overseer (Abe Vigoda) after being caught stealing. Now his sons, working for the same mobster, carry on the dope-dealer legacy. That is, until the tormented Roemello decides he wants out.
What pulls him back in? Family, of course: the furious, desperate Ray, who sets off a chain of vengeance when a new player (Ernie Hudson) muscles his way onto the block. The plot, to put it mildly, is thin stuff, and director Leon Ichaso, making overly programmatic use of a mournful jazz-trumpet score, stages it with a kind of plodding gracelessness. His Harlem is a strangely underpopulated place, even more of a dead zone than the real thing. For all that, I was held by the performances of Clarence Williams III, who evokes a queasy sympathy as the blasted A.R., and Michael Wright, a long-underappreciated actor who seems to let suffering and rage pour right through his skin. Snipes, on the other hand, remains a mask of macho stoicism- though, to be fair, no actor could triumph over a tragic climax this bogus, not to mention the even more bogus happy ending. Sugar Hill wants to tear up our insides, but I’m afraid the movie leaves us hooting with disbelief instead. C-