“Harlem Nights” (1989)

by A.J. Hakari

"Harlem Nights" poster


I never knew a time when Eddie Murphy was the guy. When I was old enough to finally see the hard-edged blockbusters that first made him famous, he’d long since turned his career in a more family-friendly direction and become a terribly inconsistent box office draw. But looking back on Murphy’s work in the ’80s, the guy seemed downright untouchable. Just take 1989’s Harlem Nights, a passion project that the “SNL” veteran not only starred in but wrote, directed, and executive produced, as well. It was just a few years earlier that Prince’s period vanity vehicle Under the Cherry Moon crashed and burned, yet so strong was the public’s appetite for Murphy, audiences came running when he made one of his own. Harlem Nights conquered some fairly bad press to make a good chunk of change for itself, but is the movie worth anything? Well, while I’ve seen actors land more auspicious directing debuts, Murphy at least had enough sense to realize that if he was going to make a mess, he was going to make it an interesting mess.

The time is 1938. The place is Harlem, a town teeming with the finest after-hours clubs and gambling establishments in the Big Apple. It’s here that Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor) rose from holding crap games in dirty back rooms to running his own swanky joint. But as it turns out, Ray’s place has become too lucrative for its own good, as big-time gangster Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner) sees it as a threat to his turf and makes his intentions on taking over loud and clear. Quick (Murphy), Ray’s right-hand man and adopted son, wants the outfit to stand its ground, but his mentor favors packing up and moving out…though not without sending a message first. Despite Bugsy having enough manpower and then some to steamroll his way into controlling the Harlem hot spot, Quick and company are cooking up one final scheme, one that will show New York’s nastiest lowlifes that they’re not a force to be trifled with.

Those afraid that the period setting of Harlem Nights might have cleansed Murphy’s notorious potty mouth need not sweat it. The flick’s no Raw, but the blue humor is in full force here, with many of the punchlines simply being one character dropping an epic curse bomb of some kind upon another. Moments like these speak directly to our inner five-year-olds and do get their fair share of laughs (I could’ve had two hours of Redd Foxx’s cranky craps dealer telling people to kiss his ass, and I’d have been satisfied), although they cause the story to flirt with anachronism just as often. On one hand, it’s relieving to see the cast of Harlem Nights resisting the urge to let loose with a cartoonish cacophony of clichéd mobster voices and the like (there isn’t a “N’yeah, see?” to be heard). But for the most part, these actors rehash their standard screen personas of the time, only with more tommy guns and spiffier wardrobes. Still, while the language makes for a wonky fit, the film’s gorgeous production design does an incredible job of bringing ’30s Harlem to life. The sets, the cars, the costumes — everything looks amazing, without an overblown visual element in sight. And if that weren’t enough to immerse viewers, the soundtrack packs in some great jazz favorites and a score by Herbie Hancock to set the mood even more like a champ.

Inconsistency tends to haunt Harlem Nights, right down to its story and overall tone. The general premise isn’t all that different from something like The Sting, what with its blend of lighthearted comic capers and dramatic plot twists, as well as the fact that, even though our protagonists are all engaged in illegal enterprises, they’re undeniably the good guys. When it focuses on bringing the pieces of the big con together, Harlem Nights can be an entertaining ride, although a number distractions emerge along the way that nearly derail the journey. From Stan Shaw as a stuttering fighter to Arsenio Hall as a gangster who thinks Quick killed his brother, the movie dedicates an awful lot of screen time to kooky bit characters who barely serve the story and, worst of all, simply aren’t very funny. The flick’s serious side has more successfully intriguing subplots to offer (including Danny Aiello’s effective turn as a scummy cop), but it too is plagued with a good deal of heedless padding all its own. As for the main cast, Murphy is surprisingly restrained as Quick (who never struck me as hotheaded as the characters keep saying he is), and as previously mentioned, Redd Foxx is a straight-up hoot. But the real treasure of the film is Pryor, coming across as quiet, wise, affable, funny, and all the other traits that are essential for a film to get you to root for the criminal figures at its center.

Back in the day, Harlem Nights had a bad reputation that wasn’t entirely earned. Seeing as how much talent was involved, I’m sure quite a few expectations weren’t met, but I wouldn’t deem it worthy of either the Razzie nods or old-fashioned terrible press with which it was met. Though Harlem Nights can be a little more preoccupied with upping the swear count than with trimming the script, it’s not any worse off than many of the vintage crime pictures that inspired it.