All the Trite Moves

The drug dealer with a guilty conscience -- has there ever been a phonier Hollywood invention?

That's what Sugar Hill, which debuted locally at the Miami Film Festival, is all about. Wesley Snipes stars as Roemello "Ro" Skuggs, a heroin dealer who wants out. Of course, he doesn't want out badly enough to turn his back on the designer suits, flashy car, and opulent apartment, but what the hell.

The late French director Franaois Truffaut once said he couldn't make an anti-war movie because the battle scenes would inevitably excite the movie audience. So it is with anti-drug movies. The bad guys may pay a big price in the end, but they have plenty of fun along the way. (In other words, reel life mirrors real life.) Sugar Hill samples cliches from every Harlem gangster movie from 1972's Superfly through 1991's New Jack City. In the process, like so many of its predecessors, Sugar Hill glamorizes the very life it purports to condemn.

"I'm consumed by chaos, consumed by guilt, consumed by grief. May God forgive me," moans Ro Skuggs in a self-important voice-over early on. Ro is a veritable fount of stale, pretentious platitudes. At one point he actually says, "Times change, people change." You await with his pearls of wisdom with something less than bated breath.

Poor Ro. His mother OD'd on heroin; his father is following in her footsteps. The nice girl Ro wants to settle down with won't have anything to do with him until he quits the business for good (of course, she's willing to overlook his murderous past and help him spend the scads of money it brought him). His Mafia suppliers, led by Abe "Fish" Vigoda, are squeezing him out, and his hotheaded brother Ray wants to go to war with the uptown boys before they completely overrun the Skuggses' turf.

Wesley Snipes works hard to convey Ro's inner turmoil A a mite too hard, perhaps. After all, the choice of the dashing Snipes to play the introspective hood does little to deglamorize the profession. Luckily Snipes's acting ability is far above the norm for this genre; it's too bad his role is so unrealistic. He's good but he never quite pulls off the humble, misunderstood homeboy shtick. Yo, Wes -- you're a heroin dealer, for crying out loud. Stop whining! It's like watching Madonna complain about feeling lonely.

Too bad screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper and director Leon Ichaso were shooting this film while Carlito's Way was still in production. They could have learned a lot about the repentant gangster hustle from it.



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