Here are a couple of big-screen films by first-time actors-turned-directors (though both have previously directed for television).
Bill Duke, best known for playing particularly nasty heavies in movies like "Bird on a Wire," offers us "A Rage in Harlem," a sassy, brassy action-comedy.Veteran actor Martin Sheen makes his debut with "Cadence," which is a well-intentioned attempt to explore racism and the trappings of gung-ho behavior in the military.
Unfortunately, both films suffer from too many rough edges. But both, especially Duke's, indicate they are talents to watch for in the future.
- "A RAGE IN HARLEM" is a wild ride with eccentric characters to spare (all played by a top-notch cast) and lots of sly humor in its story of a hunt for gold in 1950s Harlem as created by Chester Himes, author of "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and "Come Back, Charleston Blue," which became films in the early '70s. (Those movies were about the exploits of a pair of maverick cops called Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, who are relegated to minor characters here.)
"A Rage in Harlem" begins in Mississippi with a shootout over a cache of gold. But before the shooting stops, the sultry Imabelle (Robin Givens) makes off with the treasure, heading for Harlem where she hopes to have a gangster named Easy Money (Danny Glover) trade it for currency.
But since Imabelle has no money when she gets there, she links up with Jackson, a shy but amiable mortician. Wearing a red dress that clings to her like Saran Wrap, Imabelle sets out to seduce Jackson so she can use his apartment for a night. Of course, Jackson falls head over heels for her and she is, in turn, intrigued by his innocence.
So, when Imabelle is kidnapped by her old boyfriend (Badja Djola), who wants his gold back, it's Jackson to the rescue - along with his estranged con-artist brother, Goldy (Gregory Hines).
Much of this is fast and funny and more than a little violent. The entire cast is excellent, but, as you may have already read, it is Givens who runs away with the picture in a knockout, scene-stealing, starmaking performance in her first film.
So, it's all the more unfortunate that the film suffers gaps in logic and has more than its share of technical glitches. And Duke is not above belaboring his R-rated excesses (and he seems to have a strange fetish for tongues).
Still, it's better than most of what we see in this genre these days.
"A Rage in Harlem" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.
- "CADENCE" is a more modest film that never seems to reach very high, settling for superficial characterizations and an overly familiar series of circumstances.
The setting is an American camp in Germany, circa 1965, with the specter of Vietnam looming over the proceedings.
Charlie Sheen stars as a soldier who was forced to join up as a teenager and whose father has just passed away when the film opens. After the funeral he returns to his post in Germany and gets roaring drunk, which leads to his puttingtattoos of eight-balls on his hands - the Army doesn't like tattoos that show. He subsequently punches an MP and dives through the window of a local bar.
Naturally, the Army doesn't look too kindly on these events, and Sheen finds himself in the stockade. His immediate superior is a macho sergeant (director Martin Sheen) who is also a borderline psychotic, and his bunkmates are five black soldiers, each in for something worse than what he did.
The film has two main plots, the first about Charlie Sheen's having to make peace with his fellow prisoners, who are as wary of him as he is of them, and the second about Martin Sheen going crazy, helped by Charlie's chip on his shoulder since it reminds the sergeant of his own rebellious son.
There is also a bit of business about restoring a windmill that is reminiscent of David Carradine's "Americana," in which Carradine played a troubled Vietnam veteran who restored a carousel.
Though this is obviously not unfamiliar territory, "Cadence" might have made some sort of impact if it were at all compelling. But Sheen the director seems content to skim along the surface and never really explore any of the questions he raises.
The cast is good, though woefully underused. Larry Fishburne makes the strongest impression as the leader of the inmates, and F. Murray Abraham has an unbilled cameo as a lawyer. (Ramon Estevez, who plays the corporal of the guard, is Charlie Sheen's brother.)
"Cadence" is rated PG for violence and profanity but not a lot of either.