By Ira Robbins
Updated May 18, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

Considering that Eddie Murphy is the reigning king of screen comedy, how unreasonable is it to expect that a film he wrote, directed, and starred in should be funny? Instead of the sidesplitting brilliance of which he’s capable, Murphy now settles for producing pictures that resemble comedies but don’t actually contain many laughs.

After the success of the idiotic Coming to America, perhaps the mediocrity of Harlem Nights should not have come as a surprise. Faults that would ruin most movies — a weak screenplay, the absence of humor, a poky tempo-become mere critics’ quibbles in the face of Murphy’s overpowering charisma. Still, the star’s directorial debut squanders an enormous amount of talent and effort telling a story that’s only moderately entertaining.

Murphy’s notion of a mainstream film about African-Americans is set in 1938 Harlem, where Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor, in a wonderfully dignified role) and his adopted son, Quick (Murphy), run a swank after-hours nightclub. When a big-time mobster makes a move on the operation, Ray decides to fold his tent and leave town. But first he wants to snatch a pile of the crime lord’s dough, and concocts a sting involving a prizefight.

The plot is so familiar that dialogue is almost superfluous (and there wouldn’t be much of that if not for the deluge of profanity). But the overstocked cast of veterans — Della Reese as the world’s toughest madam; Redd Foxx as a crusty old croupier who can’t see the dice; Danny Aiello as a crooked, racist cop; and Michael Lerner as bad guy Bugsy Calhoune — is so spectacular that Murphy is almost reduced to an ensemble player. The role of Quick is no great acting challenge: A trigger-happy smoothie with little personality, he shoots people, eludes murderers, and gets the girl with equally stylish indifference.

The numerous killings are handled discreetly, but in a queasy display of unbridled misogyny, a vicious brawl with Reese is given full play. Though Harlem Nights is far from terrible, it could have been a much better film. Imagine if Spike Lee had such resources and star power at his disposal.