Movie review: ‘Harlem Nights’

I’m sure you’re sure I’m exaggerating when I write, “The caper film is always fun. Always; even when done bad.” I’m not, but when it’s done good, it’s a can’t miss. Whether it’s criminals on a job (Robert Redford in the “Hot Rock” for example – click here for my review) or a talented amateur (Pierce Brosnan in the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” – click here for my review), a nicely done caper film is enjoyable. “Harlem Nights” with Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor isn’t a classic caper movie, but since it has a caper at its heart I’ll put it in the genre. Besides, it’s an entertaining movie that is intelligent despite its profanity and a showcase of underrated actors’ talent.

‘Harlem Nights’
(1989; 116 minutes; rated R; directed by Eddie Murphy and starring Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx)

THEY’RE TOUGH, SMART AND EVER SO COOL

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on Nov. 10, 2017.)

At its heart, “Harlem Nights” is Eddie Murphy’s film. He stars in it; he directed it; he wrote it; and he was executive producer. Those are facts and so is it fact (in my opinion) that this is a nearly great film and a bunch of fun to watch (if you can stand a B-52 strike of f-bombs). Critics at the time didn’t agree and gave it a resounding thumbs-down.

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I’d say that “Harlem Nights” is actually in the league with “The Sting,” but doesn’t come close to reaching that pinnacle of excellence – it would be impossible since “The Sting” won seven Oscars including for best film and director and was nominated for best actor. Still, I’d say that the Murphy-Richard Pryor duo is even better than the Robert Redford-Paul Newman pairing in “The Sting.” The two stand-up comedians have much better on-screen chemistry than Redford and Newman did – except as “Butch” and “Sundance.”

The one area where “Harlem Nights” clearly beats “The Sting” without a doubt is the supporting cast. With legendary entertainers like Redd Foxx and Della Reese topping the supporting efforts, you also get solid work from Danny Aiello, Jasmine Guy and Michael Lerner. Even a small bit part is played to perfection by Arsenio Hall, who cries basically throughout his entire performance.

The film is excellently layered and timed so that the layers don’t impede the flow of the overall story. It begins when Murphy, playing “Quick,” was a young boy running errands for Pryor, who plays “Sugar Ray.” Pryor runs an after-hours club with gambling and the story quickly picks up with Murphy as an adult.

Pryor and Murphy, who’s now called Pryor’s “son,” now run an after-hours club in Harlem. It’s the coolest of Harlem’s ultra-cool places to be and be seen with music, food, drinks, women and gambling. However, its success comes with a price: A white gangster, “Bugsy Calhoune” played by Lerner, wants to muscle in and uses a tough cop, “Sgt. Phil Cantone” played by Aiello, as his hammer.

Pryor and his group need to make a quick exit from town rather than fight the gangsters, but they’ll do it with a twist. They want to trick Calhoune into believing a boxing match is fixed when it isn’t. They plan to make a lot of money off Calhoune’s bookmaking operation by faking the fix and betting on the better fighter.

Twists and turns later, the whole thing plays out to its successful conclusion.

Here’s a look at some of the principal cast:

  • Two-time Primetime Emmy nominee Pryor is so smooth with his timing and ability to convey his character to the viewer that it’s difficult to believe he could have been anything else but the suave and sophisticated “Sugar Ray” in real life. He does it all here: A look, a glance (yes, there’s a difference) or just the change of an intonation of voice. Richard gives a choice performance here. Pryor’s films include “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Car Wash,” “Silver Streak” with Gene Wilder (click here for my review), the uneven but watchable “The Toy” with Jackie Gleason (click here for my review), “Superman III” and “Brewster’s Millions.” He died at 65 in 2005 of a heart attack.
  • An Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner (not for this one), Murphy is, well, Eddie Murphy. He, too, is smooth but he’s also fast-talking and has a temper like his name: “Quick.” His character’s full name is “Vernest ‘Quick’ Brown.” Murphy’s credits are much to extensive to even try to single one or two out here. He’s done it all on the big screen from profane to family; from comedy to drama; from stage performances to voicing. He won his Globe and nabbed the Oscar nomination for “Dreamgirls” and was nominated for four other Globes for “The Nutty Professor,” the sensational “Beverly Hills Cop,” the classic comedy “Trading Places” (click here for my review) and “48 Hrs.
  • The best single scene of the film is between Murphy and Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Reese, who plays the club’s madam “Vera Watson.” I’ll describe the scene in detail later, but I’ll just say here that it spotlights the best of both actors’ abilities. Reese, whose credits include “Touched by an Angel,” for which she was nominated, and string of TV shows, is just outstanding here and holds her own in Murphy’s tightly written, profane script. She had a tiny part in Murphy’s “The Distinguished Gentleman” and was sensational in those few moments, too (click here for my review). Reese died at 86 in 2017.
  • Golden Globe winner and three-time nominee (not for this one) Foxx, who like both Pryor and Murphy made his mark as a profane stand-up comedian before becoming TV’s “Fred Sanford” on the now-iconic “Sanford and Son,” gives a great turn as “Bennie Wilson” and he’s a foil to Reese. For example, he tries to run a craps table even though he can’t see the dice and blusters his way through the rest of the film to perfection. His one-liner about a man offering to change religions over a woman will leave you doubled-over. Foxx won his Globe and nabbed the nominations for “Sanford and Son.” He died at 68 in 1991 of a heart attack.
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Lerner conveys his character’s menace easily and is perfect casting for this role. He doesn’t have the right material to elevate “Bugsy,” but he’s just about the best of the supporting actors here. Lerner has been in “Elf,” “Eight Men Out” and more recently in the TV smash hit “Glee,” He was nominated for “Barton Fink” and was in “The Calcium Kid.”
  • Guy, who plays “Dominque La Rue,” smolders as the elegant mistress to Lerner and would-be assassin of Murphy, but she doesn’t manage to stretch the role to any extent. She’s also unable to convey a variety of emotions that would have helped elevate the character out of the background. Guy’s most recognizable role was on TV’s “A Different World” as “Whitley Gilbert.”
  • Finally, there’s Oscar nominee (not for this one) Aiello, who all too easily conveys his role of a tough guy who tries at times to hide behind the façade of a fool. Aiello gave a much better performance in “2 Days in the Valley” (click here for my review) but roles as good as the one he had in “2 Days” do not come along very often. Although he was deserving, he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for “2 Days” but did get one (and a Golden Globe nomination) for “Do the Right Thing.” You probably don’t remember, but he was “Tony Rosato” in “The Godfather: Part II.”

Others in “Harlem Nights” are not remarkable, but much like Nick Polizzo, who plays “Bugsy’s” henchman and bagman “Richie Vento,” they are solid and provide a foundation to the film.  Polizzo’s “Vento” is “Calhoune’s” bagman who falls in love with one of Reese’s girls and is key into the gang boss losing to the good guys here. Vento was also in “Prizzi’s Honor” with Jack Nicholson (click here for my review).

The single scene that I like best in “Harlem Nights” is when Murphy somewhat accuses Reese of stealing … or at least not making enough money for the gang with her girls. Reese winds up squaring off with Murphy and basically cleans his clock a couple of times. Not only is the banter between the two great, but their physical acting is solid, too. It is a simply hilarious and effective play between two actors doing their best work.

In the end, the plot is straightforward but somewhat intricate and the Murphy-Pryor duo just exude cool at every turn. It’s not easy to be really, really cool on the big screen. It’s far easier to look like you’re trying to be cool and come off idiotic. Both Murphy and Pryor do their jobs beyond right and should have received more recognition for this film.

A note about the f-bombs in “Harlem Nights:” there are a lot of them. The movie is credited with 133 bombs by the characters (no, I didn’t count I used the Internet), according to IMDb.com. However, this volume doesn’t even let “Harlem Nights” crack the Top 113 films, according to a Wiki list, because the 113th ranked f-bomb film is “Hoffa” and its 150 bombs.

At the other end of the spectrum, the No. 2 film is the recent “The Wolf of Wall Street” with a staggering 569 bombs. It is absolutely no surprise that director Martin Scorsese has three of the Top 10 (“Wolf,” “Casino” with 422 and “Goodfellas” with 300). Still, the No. 1 f-bomb film is a documentary about the word, so it doesn’t really count, and is a virtual carpet bombing with 857 dropped in its 93-minute run.

Harlem Nights” was ranked a very solid 21st at the box office in 1989 with $60.8 million for its domestic run, according to Box Office Mojo. It added just over another $30 million in overseas markets and it was made on a budget of $30 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film at the box office was “Batman,” which hauled in $251.1 million. Here are the other films from that year that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Stan Shaw, who plays boxer “Jack Jenkins,” has been in “Rocky,” “Rising Sun” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Eddie Murphy once said that the jokes and camaraderie between him, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Robin Martin [sic, Robin Harris], and Della Reese behind the scenes was much funnier than anything that was in the film. “
  • Harlem Nights” is the second and final film with Murphy and Hall. The first was “Coming to America” the year before.
  • Uncle Ray Murphy, who plays “Willie,” is Murphy’s uncle. Hence, the name.
  • Paramount wanted Robert Duvall to play “Calhoune,” but Murphy insisted on Lerner. I really like Duvall, but I don’t see him in this film.
  • Murphy was later quoted as saying he spent more time looking for the next party during the movie’s production than he spent on his directing of it.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The film got Academy Award nominated for Best Costume Design but failed to win the Oscar in this category with the prize going to the historical outfits for William Shakespeare‘s Henry V (1989).”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2017.
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