Picks and Pans Review: A Rage in Harlem

UPDATED 05/20/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/20/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

Robin Givens, Forest Whitaker

A lot of this movie is seriously underexposed, the images faded and murky. So it's sometimes hard to tell, but it seems to be a slight crime comedy that would have been outdated (and outclassed) if it had appeared 20 years ago when Ossie Davis, Belafonte, Cosby and Poitier were making films like Cotton Comes to Harlem and Uptown Saturday Night.

The script by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford has Givens, Whitaker, Gregory Hines, Danny Glover, Zakes Mokae and Badja Djola chasing after a trunk of gold left over from a Mississippi robbery and shipped to New York City in the mid-'50s. That extraordinary cast, directed by Bill Duke (best known as an actor in such films as Bird on a Wire), has little to do other than idle between sporadic outbursts of sadistic violence.

Givens, who is of the Bo Derek, lip-licking—sexiness school of acting, is a doxy who takes refuge in the arms of Whitaker, a meek funeral-parlor bookkeeper. Hines is Whitaker's con-man brother; Glover is a racketeer with an obsession for his pet Pekingese; and Djola is Givens's former accornplicelover. (The film's best bits are running gags, such as having Djola say, "Pop goes the weasel," whenever he wants someone killed. This would be funnier if people weren't slitting each other's throats and throwing acid around.)

Whitaker, doing a Lou Costello-Stan Laurel turn as the virgin accountant, makes a flimsy character marginally interesting. Hines and Glover long ago outgrew such minor roles as they have here though. And it's not as if they're doing cameos in Hamlet. The dialogue, after all, features such lines as "We got dead people to tend to here. You think they're gonna wait on you?"

Everything, however, might have seemed figuratively brighter if only the film were literally brighter. It's much easier to laugh if you're not squinting into the darkness trying to figure out who's who and where who is. (R)

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