Hoodlum

on August 29, 1997 by Wade Major
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Filmmakers love gangsters, and none with more affection than those legendary Depression-era dukes of debauchery Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Unfortunately, such efforts as "Bugsy," "The Cotton Club," "Mobsters" and "Billy Bathgate" have so overexposed the characters and their milieu that separating truth from myth might well be a long-lost cause. All of that helps explain why the makers of "Hoodlum" chose to shift their focus onto Harlem's own Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a lesser-known, though no less instrumental, figure of the era. Although Laurence Fishburne's Johnson does indeed cut a compelling figure, overlong lackluster writing and uninspired direction relegate "Hoodlum" to the bottom rung of American gangster epics.
   Essentially a flat-out gang warfare picture with Johnson and Schultz (Tim Roth) battling for control of the lucrative Harlem numbers racket, "Hoodlum," is an ambitious film that seeks to educate as much as entertain, weaving broad socio-political statements among intermittent gunplay. But the messages are as simplistic as the film's history is revisionist, painting Johnson as a kind of hometown hero of the Robin Hood variety, despite repeated proclamations by friends and associates to the contrary.
   Johnson and Schultz, of course, are merely the loose cannons for their syndicates, run respectively by "Queen Madame" Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson) and Luciano (Andy Garcia). To the filmmakers' credit, these complications do finally pay off with a series of clever crosses and double-crosses in the final reels that might have saved the picture had the narrative damage of the first half been less severe.
   Still, despite the pitfalls of Chris Brancato's convention-laden script, most of the performers manage to extract relatively persuasive portrayals, with Chi McBride a noteworthy standout as Johnson's cousin Illinois Gordon. Roth's campy, slobbish take on Schultz, on the other hand, ranges from amusing to embarrassing, while Vanessa Williams is thoroughly wasted in a pointless romantic subplot.
   Having successfully dealt with similar material on "A Rage in Harlem," it's surprising that director Bill Duke fails to ignite even the flavor of the period. Instead, Duke's direction is frustratingly forced, relying on booming Elmer Bernstein crescendos and sweeping crane shots to inject emotion where there is none.
   Even hoodlums deserve better. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia, Vanessa Williams and Cicely Tyson. Directed by Bill Duke. Written by Chris Brancato. Produced by Frank Mancuso Jr. A UA release. Drama. Rated R for graphic gangster violence, strong language, a scene of sexuality and some nudity. Running time: 134 min
Tags: Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia, Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson, Directed by Bill Duke, Written by Chris Brancato, Produced by Frank Mancuso Jr, A UA release, Drama, material, convention-laden, persuasive, embarrassing, slobbish, romantic
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