Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor headline an all-star cast in today’s movie, Harlem Nights. The film features some extremely funny moments and a clever caper, but these aren’t enough to overcome some real problems. The film marks directorial debut for Murphy, (who’s also the sole credited writer,) it also marks his directorial swansong, and having seen the film, that’s probably for the best.
Pryor plays “Sugar” Ray, the proprietor of an illegal casino in 1920’s Harlem, while Murphy plays his adopted son, Quick. Things are going very well for Ray and Quick, unfortunately things are going so well that their business has attracted the attention of mob boss Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner). Bugsy sends a message that he wants two-thirds of the take in exchange for allowing Ray and Quick to continue doing business in his town. In response Ray and Quick, along with a few loyal staff members devise a scheme to get back at Bugsy, and from there we have a plot.
There really is quite a bit to like about this movie, the cast is fantastic. I particularly liked Della Reese as Vera, the madam at Sugar Ray’s. The fight between Vera and Quick was, hands down, the funniest part of the movie, and really had me hooked as a viewer, unfortunately the rest of the movie fails to live up to the potential of this early scene.
The film has some serious problems with pacing and tone. It’s like Murphy didn’t know what kind of movie he wanted to make. The film shifts erratically between genres, sometimes its a broad comedy, sometimes it’s a sly caper, sometimes its a serious action movie, most of the time it’s riding the clutch somewhere in between.
The film also drags pretty badly in the middle. I honestly feel that the entire subplot with Domnique La Rue (Jasmine Guy) could have been excised. It would have meant losing a great scene with Redd Foxx’s Bernie warning Quick about the dangers of dating Creole women, but other than that the entire subplot contributes nothing.
Overall, Harlem Nights has a great cast, and a clever premise, I can’t help but think that a more experienced director might have made it into a really good movie. Unfortunately, Eddie Murphy wasn’t up to the task, and the result is a film that despite some real highlights just isn’t worth seeing.