The gangster film has been so done to death, and is so familiar by now, that you could recite a laundry list of mob movie icons while blindfolded and tied to a chair. Tommy guns, fedora hats, double crosses, hit men, bloody shootouts, doomed romances, dismembered body parts, and on and on. Hoodlum has them all, and a laundry list is exactly what it feels like. A collection of elements rather than a distinct story, the film takes what should have been a fresh perspective on the genre and paints by numbers.
It's too bad, because the opportunity to play with color is built right into the premise. The story of gangster Ellsworth 'Bumpy' Johnson, the black Godfather of Harlem, Hoodlum presents a historical footnote to the gangland story that has not been seen before, allowing the chance to explore the areas where racial oppression and mob oppression intersect. Not only does Hoodlum not find them, it barely looks.
It's just more of the same. In Depression-era New York City, a mob war has erupted over the uptown numbers turf run by the Queen (Cicely Tyson), the aging but still elegant matriarch who has the undying respect of her community. Respect is the last concern of downtown man Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth). He adopts the look and speech patterns of an unkempt, bratty punk who wants what he wants, whatever it may be. And what he wants, is control of the Queen's Harlem.
But there would be no movie without resistance, and it comes in the form of Bumpy Johnson, just released from prison, ready to fight for the Queen's territory. Is the vigor to fight increased because the invader is a white man? For some unfortunate reason, that is never made very clear. The film pokes at the issue from time to time, but never enough to wake it from its slumber.
And without that angle, the film is asleep. A big part of the problem lies in the hole where a compelling lead character should be. As played by Laurence Fishburne in a typically solemn turn, Bumpy just doesn't have enough to do or decide, and is more a cipher than the heroic/tragic figure the film would like him to be. There is lip service paid to his sorrowful change from nice, caring guy to heartless killer, but it isn't on the screen. The plot of the film never gives him a choice as how to act, since Dutch will do anything to win control. Bumpy's retaliation is thus shown to be nothing more than community self-defense, not any Michael Corleone-esque metamorphosis.
So, the film doesn't take advantage of its sociological opportunities, nor does it work as a character study. Does it entertain as a fun gangster romp? Not particularly. It's too long and plodding, and it's maddeningly straightforward. The script, written by first-timer Chris Brancato, telegraphs just about every plot turn. The film's idea of playing with the audience is to turn the music up real loud when two characters meet mysteriously, so we can't hear what they're saying. Everything looks nice, the period flavor feels authentic, with nice costumes and cars and street settings. But director Bill Duke, whose contemporary crime saga Deep Cover was far more successful in just about every category, does nothing of stylistic interest with the camera.
The actors don't fare much better. Fishburne gives his usual commanding performance, but he has too little to command. Roth has a better time as the villain, with all his hammy potential, though he's never able to rise above the character's one note. Andy Garcia pops up every once in a while looking calm and bored as Lucky Luciano; his lazy eye makes him appear less menacing than sleepy. Vanessa Williams has more screen time, but no more substance. She is the moral conscience of the film, which we know because she views all the violence with wide-eyed shock, and even gets to wear a white Flo Nightingale nurse uniform while bathed in an angelic glow.
The one actor who gets a chance to truly shine is Clarence Williams III, as Bub Hewlett, one of Dutch's henchmen. Williams, whose line readings are so unmannered and flavorless that they take on a distinct flavor of their own, is a fascinating presence. It's too bad his character is kept in the background, because he clearly has the most interesting dramatic situation. Co-opted into Dutch's gang by the lure of increased profits, he becomes a black man ordered by a white man to help oppress the black community, and must confront the guilt and self-hatred that results. Sounds like an idea for a new mob movie.