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HARLEM NIGHTS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Della Reese, Danny Aiello, Michael Lerner, Jasmine Guy, Arsenio Hall
Director: Eddie Murphy
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: Theatrical Trailer
Length: 115 Minutes
Release Date: January 29, 2002

ďCímon now, Vera, put that razor away! Iím warning you, put that razor away or Iím gonna shoot your pinky toe off!Ē

ďOh! Now your gonna shoot me in my pinky toe.Ē

ďBitch, Iím not playiní. You gonna be the nine-toe havingest, limpiníest bitch in Harlem, you donít put that razor away!Ē

Film ***

What a beating Harlem Nights got in its initial release. The movie, which marked Eddie Murphyís directorial debut, was a moderate success at the box office, though it didnít pull in the big box office bucks Murphyís previous films, such as Coming to America and the Beverly Hills Cop movies. The biggest blows of all came from the critics, many of which did not hesitate to include this among their list of the worst movies of the year. It looks as if the movie got targeted by those who had heard all the so-called hype surrounding the film, and Harlem Nights certainly had some hype. Not only did you have Eddie Murphy directing, but you also had him starring in the lead alongside the all-time comedy great, Richard Pryor, a combination that one could only dream of. Having the chance to finally see the movie after all these years, thanks to its arrival on DVD, I found the movie was not a remarkably great movie, but a sharp and roaringly funny piece of entertainment, good for many a laugh.

The movie recalls the nightclub days of Harlem in the late 30s. You could sort of call it The Cotton Club with laughs. Murphy, as a director, has done a much impressive job of recreating the era, from the streets to the glitzy nightclub atmosphere. The movie opens in 1913, as card dealer and supplier Sugar Ray (Pryor) gets a harsh threat from an angry gambler who accuses him of cheating him out. When the man pulls a knife out, the man is then shot and killed instantly, not by Sugar Ray, or any of his associates, but by a young boy standing next to Ray. He then adopts the boy, who has no family, and cut to twenty five years later, and he is now working for him as his right hand. The manís named is simply Quick (Murphy).

Sugar Ray is now the proud owner of the most popular nightclub in all of Harlem, Club Sugar Rayís, and Quick has long been at Rayís side to prevent any muscle from taking over. The club is taking in over $15,000 a week, a notion that attracts the attention of local rival gangster Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner). Bugsy then organizes a combination of crooked cops and femme fatales to assist him in putting pressure on Quick and Ray to issue some of their money to him weekly; $10,000 a week to be precise.

For Quick and Sugar Ray, handling a problem like this is, if anything, a cinch, even if itís a complicated scenario like the one they devise to fool Bugsy. Itís a clever scheme that is somewhat similar to that of the flawless heist set up George Clooney and company in the recent Oceanís Eleven, which needless to say, excels this film by a thousand miles. It involves looting a bunch of money during the night of a boxing match. I wonít go into great detail, because it needs to be seen to be enjoyed.

Harlem Nights does consist of many supporting characters, which may be a weakness in some cases, but in this case they result in some of the movieís biggest laughs. One such scene is when Quick is pursued in a chase by a gun crazy crybaby (Arsenio Hall) who has mistaken Quick for his brotherís killer. And I could not stop howling at an early scene in the movie when Quick goes head to head with gargantuan Vera (Della Reese), who runs the showgirls of the nightclub.

Critics disliked the movie immensely, but many audiences have seem to somewhat embrace this movie. Itís rare to see comedic legends like Murphy and Pryor in the same movie, and for that reason alone this makes a most entertaining package. Following the slamming of the critics, Murphyís next shot at directing seems iffy. I, on the other hand, think he has a quite an eye behind the camera, especially in recreating the atmosphere of the Harlem nightlife in this movie.

Video **

I canít help but conclude after viewing this disc that Paramount didnít have faith in this particular release. Either that, or some of the film stock was simply hard to convert to the digital format. However, this is one of the weaker transfers Iíve seen from Paramount in quite a while. It starts out with some promise, as several opening scenes appear quite clear and alive. But for the most part, what follows is an on-again-off-again series of grain and image softness, which seem to pop up for a few seconds in nearly every other scene. For a movie that takes place completely at night, I guess this was the only way to convert the film.

Audio **1/2

The audio job presents itself a tad bit better than that of the video. Paramount issues a moderate sounding 5.1 Digital track that stands out mostly during the scenes involving rampant gunfire and background music. Other such scenes, including mostly dialogue-oriented scenes, all appear to come from the front area.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Harlem Nights succeeds in what it exactly promises, which is an array of raw comedy and action, and the blending together of two legendary comedic geniuses, both of whom hold their own in the movie.