If there was any doubt that Hoodlum's cinematic model is the masterful mobster epic, The Godfather (1972), it's erased when the somber survivors of a bloody ambush, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) and Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), deal with their shock and grief by sitting very quietly together and listening to music. This is Harlem in 1934-5, but they're listening not to blues, jazz or gospel, but to opera.
Director Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem, Deep Cover) tries to create his own majestic gangster film, but his valiant efforts are undermined by the plodding, lifeless dialogue from first-time screenwriter Chris Brancato and the perfunctory amber-tinged period cinematography from Frank Tidy (Under Siege).
What Duke does have on his side is three fine actors embodying powerful mobsters: Andy Garcia as a smooth, elegant Lucky Luciano (even capturing his lazy eye), secure in his top-dog position; Tim Roth in another eccentric and compelling performance as a crude, remorseless and cruelly effective Dutch Schultz, expert at inflicting casual humiliations; and Fishburne's sly Bumpy Johnson, a cool cipher whose grab for power is mixed in with altruistic compulsions.
After being paroled from prison, Bumpy returns to Depression-era Harlem and quickly becomes reacquainted with St. Clair (also known as the regal Madame Queen), who runs the profitable "numbers" racket, an illegal lottery. Dutch Schultz has been muscling in on the Queen's territory, and Bumpy moves in to set things straight.
Bumpy is portrayed as heroic but conflicted. This stoic killer is also a master strategist (he must be since he's always playing chess), charming enough to attract a committed do-gooder (Vanessa L. Williams), too criminal to keep her.
But Hoodlum is too simplistic to grant Bumpy the ambiguity or complexity that Fishburne aims for in his performance. Here, the good guys' goal is to keep control of their own organized crime, while the bad guys are seen as greedy, vicious racists or traitors (Clarence Williams III as Schultz's enforcer).
Ultimately, Bill Duke's morality tale ends up playing as little more than a sad turf war.
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