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Paramount Studios presents
Harlem Nights (1989)

"It's not how many people you shoot, it's WHO you shoot."
- Quick (Eddie Murphy)

Review By: Dan Lopez   
Published: January 28, 2002

Stars: Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Della Reese
Other Stars: Arsenio Hall, Danny Aiello, Jasmine Guy
Director: Eddie Murphy

MPAA Rating: R for (strong language, mild violence)
Run Time: 01h:41m:48s
Release Date: January 29, 2002
UPC: 097363231646
Genre: comedy


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ B-B+B+ D

DVD Review

Comedian Eddie Murphy decided to take the leap into the director's chair when he took on the 1989 project Harlem Nights; a huge, ambitious comedic period piece that would feature major African American talent. The end result was, in my own memory, a complete disaster. It was critically blasted, did poorly at the box office, and the negative hype surrounding it would have convinced anyone that Murphy was the lord of all things dark and evil. So, when I fired up the film, I expected to see one of the worst films ever made. Suddenly, I found myself laughing a bit and being rather charmed by the goofy, though occasionally filthy-humored. storyline. A satire of classic gangster films, the Murphy produced and written film has enough substance to hold up to scrutiny (including the fantastic cast), but never takes itself too seriously. By the time it was over, I wondered where the hideous film had gone. Set in the 1930s, Harlem Nights is about a nightclub owner, Sugar Ray (Pryor) and his adopted 'son' of sorts, Quick (Murphy), both of whom have to deal with the ins and outs of running an illegal business in the midst of heavier, mafia control. Amongst their employees are Bennie (Foxx) who is practically blind, yet still calls dice games, and Vera (Reese) who handles the prostitution interests. They are considered a bright spot in the typically bland life of Harlem, and are quite the close family. Unfortunately, a local mobster by name of Bugsy Calhoune sees Sugar Ray's club as a threat to his own enterprises, so he makes Ray an offer: leave Harlem with his business or fall under the thumb of Calhoune. Ray, Quick, and the rest of the gang agree that rather than let themselves be pushed around by Calhoune, they'll go out with a bang. They put together an elaborate plan to rob Calhoune and settle all their debts in Harlem, so they can move on.Primarily a comedy, Harlem Nights isn't especially brilliant, but it is funny andmanages to use its cast pretty well. While I would expect a bit more from a film with core characters like Pryor, Foxx, and Murphy, it still manages to fit in some great scenes with extended laughs. At the time it was criticized for the amazing amount of foul language, but this doesn't seem as bothersome today. Call it a guilty pleasure, put there's something incredibly funny about the extraordinarily "blue" arguments and threats all these characters lob at each other, whether they're joking or not; Della Reese is especially well used in this manner, belting out obscenities like nobody's business. If there's a real problem in the story, it's that it often slips out of its comedic mode and into heavier subjects. It tries to be lighthearted, but the mood is sometimes too dramatic or well-directed (to Eddie Murphy's credit) to come off as humorous. Especially creepy is Danny Aiello as a corrupt policeman, but his charisma makes him too believable to be taken lightly.Overall, I liked Harlem Nights and found it very enjoyable. It wasnowhere near as cluttered and horrible as I had been led to believe and, while it certainly isn't perfect, it's a good film for a much-needed laugh. I think perhaps Murphy bit off too much when he decided to make such an apparently large-scale project with such a cast, and it shows, but it could have been a much bigger failure. If nothing else, it was a high experiment that attempted a mainstream comedy that featured not only a primarily African American cast, but one that wasn't geared towards teenagers. It seems a little vain that Murphy did so much and then cast himself in the lead, but he does a good enough job that it's hard to complain.Also worth mentioning was that this collection of actors and comedians showcased some nice performances, especially Redd Foxx in his last movie role. It was also the last major performance by Richard Pryor before his problems with Multiple Sclerosis began to effect future on-screen appearances. Despite all the controversy over the bad language and foul humor, Harlem Nights is certainly far more dignified than projects I've seen since then, particularly many modern day "trash" comedies. Interesting how, over time, something that seemed awful one day suddenly seems pastoral and innocent by comparison.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: A satisfying transfer overall, but it seemed soft to me. Compression problems seem to cause continous movement and shimmering in the backgrounds, in smokier, darker scenes; scenes with no camera pans. Despite the softness, the image still maintains a good amount of fine detail and great color presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 5.1 track is a pleasant, theatrical way to enjoy the film, but isn't filled with a whole lot of action. The surround channels are used for occasional ambience and some split effects during busier sequences with crowds, but the fairly light nature of the movie means the soundtrack (by Herbie Hancock) takes up most of the full soundfield. Dialogue and all important factors of the front speakers are perfectly audible and understandable. The 2.0 English and French soundtracks are not quite as clear and open, but they still have the basic elements of the 5.1 track. The French track lacks surround activity, however.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Other than subtitles and an original theatrical trailer, there are no supplements. Thepresentation is pretty standard with neither good nor bad. The film could have used acouple more chapter stops, but otherwise no major complaints.

Extras Grade: D

 

Final Comments

In retrospect, I think Harlem Nights stands as one of Eddie Murphy's better films. While disjointed and unsure of its own potential, it's still generally funny and holds its own against similar films. Certainly, Murphy has done far worse.

 


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