Snap-brim fedoras, vintage autos, blazing Tommy guns, corrupt public
officials and greedy mobsters battling it out over turf rights recur
throughout director Bill Duke's violent, 1930s' racketeering epic
"Hoodlum," a pictorially authentic actioneer that evokes memories of
the classic Robert Stack television series "The Untouchables." Although
"Hoodlum" boasts a top-drawer cast, including Laurence Fishburne,
Vanessa Williams, Tim Roth, and Andy Garcia, this lavishly mounted but
uneven gangster saga suffers from its rambling length, garrulous script
and a shortage of shoot-outs. As the first major film to headline the
crimes of Harlem's infamous Black Godfather Ellsworth 'Bumpy' Johnson,
this production offers a novel departure for audiences that are weary
of superheroes, female warriors and hard-bitten cops who have were
crowding the big-screen when "Hoodlum" appeared in 1997.
The Chris Brancato screenplay introduces Bumpy in 1934 as he exits Sing
Sing Prison. Duke and Brancato exert great pains to differentiate Bumpy
from the typical African-American mobster. He peruses books, plays
chess, and pens poetry. As literate as Bumpy is, he can pull a trigger
or wield a knife without a pang of remorse when somebody threatens a
person who he loves. Like "The Godfather II" and "Once Upon A Time in
America," "Hoodlum" charts the rise of the Godfather of Harlem in a
ruthless game of survival that claims his best friend Illinois Gordon
(Chi McBride of "I, Robot") and leaves Bumpy forever altered by the
gory experience. Ostensibly, you won't see anything in "Hoodlum" that
you haven't seen in dozens of other crime films. "Hoodlum" features
notorious real-life racketeers such as Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth of "Pulp
Fiction") and Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia of "Godfather III") as well as
corrupt special prosecutor Thomas Dewey (William Atherton of "The
Sugarland Express). When Bumpy arrives in Harlem, he watches a numbers
runner working for Madam Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson) who is the
so-called 'Queen of the Numbers.' The Dutchman craves to absorb the
territory that the Madam has struggled for a decade to build into the
number one home-grown Harlem business. Bumpy vows to prevent any
takeover by the Irish mob.
Meanwhile, the boorish, grubby, low-life Schultz refuses to appease
Lucky or Bumpy. Along the way, Bumpy falls in love with righteous
Francine (Vanessa Williams) who wants him to find respectable work.
Bumpy refuses to stoop to menial employment. When Dutch cannot kill the
Madam, he bribes a judge to send her to the pen. Bumpy supervises the
Madam's empire at her request during her absence. Bumpy's bloodthirsty
methods clash with her live-and-let-live notions. Eventually, Luciano
and Bumpy strike a deal, and Dutch finds himself out in the cold.
Suddenly, gangster gunfire chops down a young, innocent numbers runner.
Now, Bumpy's cronies think that he has gone too far. Francine bails out
on him more out of the formulaic dictates of the story than for any
motivated reason. So do the filmmakers. The second half of the movie
shows Bumpy losing favor with everybody.
The film's publicity notes claim that "Hoodlum" is complete fiction,
but historical characters populate the story. Of course, movies rarely
recreate history with any fidelity. History is more chaotic than
dramatic, so filmmakers recast it to fit their dramatic formulas. One
way is by cutting the number of characters. Refusing to portray these
events as they actually occurred, Duke and Brancato blow a fantastic
opportunity to exploit their melodramatic potential. Duke, whose
directorial credits include "Deep Cover" and "A Rage in Harlem,"
wrestles with the obvious lapses in Brancato's script. The length of
"Hoodlum" may have been cut by the studio to squeeze in more showings
in a single evening. The action grows and takes on an episodic quality
when Bumpy becomes callous. After the first half, the film's momentum
bogs down, and "Hoodlum" loses its air of fun. The time has come for
the characters to pay the piper.
The filmmakers embrace a curious morality. In most gangster movies, the
hoodlum hero must die. Bumpy gets off easy, as does Luciano and only
Dutch antes up with his life. Duke and Brancato allow their criminals
greater leniency. The gangsters are less cancerous than the defenders
of justice. Consequently, "Hoodlum" concludes on an anti-climax.
Moreover, the filmmakers neglect to post an epilogue about Bumpy's
outcome. For the record, the gangster who hires Shaft to find his
kidnapped daughter in "Shaft" is a variation on Bumpy" as is the
kingpin mobster in "American Gangster" with Denzel Washington. The
problem with Brancato's script is its uneven quality. The action-packed
first half is more entertaining than the tedious, long-winded second
half. The filmmakers glorify Bumpy initially as a Robin Hood gangster
who steals from a rival mob and gives to Harlem's starving citizens.
Fishburne is riveting as a tough-as-nails but warm-hearted criminal.
Roth takes top acting honors, however, as Dutch Schultz and looks like
he had a ball exaggerating those vile elements in Schultz's psychotic
behavior. Garcia epitomizes sartorial urbanity as the peace-making
Italian gangster who divides his time between Bumpy, Dutch, and special
prosecutor Dewey. Atherton's egotistical special prosecutor bristles
with revulsion in his dealings with these crooks, but accepts their
bribes. The filmmakers make the repressive Dewey appear particularly
loathsome, a Judas whose contempt for the mob is exceeded only by his
mockery of justice.
Despite some flavorful dialogue, "Hoodlum" plays it straight down the
line as a dramatic shoot'em up. Audiences expecting a variation on
Eddie Murphy's "Harlem Nights" may leave this Fishburne film
disappointed. Although it's no "Godfather," "Hoodlum" is definitely
above-average and far beyond those 1970s camp classics that headlined
Fred Williamson as the black Caesar of crime in "Hell Up in Harlem." If
you enjoy gangster epics, "Hoodlum" is worth the price of admission.
Some critics have savaged "Hoodlum" for its debatable morality.
Ironically, Bumpy rises to the summit of his profession. At fade-out,
however, Duke and Brancato show that the gangster's life is one that
leaves you standing alone in the rain outside the church door without a