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Volume 91, Issue 7
Tuesday, September 9, 1997
frosh 'n' tasty
All guns and not very much story
By Jamie Lynn
One of the key elements in creating a great gangster film is a tremendous amount of style. The post-depression, urban mobster era has long been recognized as one of the most romanticized periods in film history. While the images are often familiar in these pictures pin stripe suits, fedora hats and those ever-present tommy guns the best ones still manage to truly transcend the overworked clichés and transport the audience to this oh-so-glamorous period. While Bill Duke's new film, Hoodlum, is certainly successful in that regard, the film's story seemed to take a back seat to its glorious images and therefore was sadly lost along the way.
Hoodlum is a 1930s crime drama that takes place in Harlem, New York during the Great Depression. Based on a true story, the film tells the tale of Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson played by Laurence Fishburne, (Boyz 'N the Hood) who ran the numbers game which gave those involved a daily opportunity to win an illegal lottery of sorts. This game provided hope and employment for many unemployed Harlem people. Bumpy Johnson, however, must deal with the wealthier empires of gangsters, Lucky Luciano, played by Andy Garcia, (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) and Dutch Schultz, played by Tim Roth, (Reservoir Dogs) who attempt to move in on Bumpy's territory. The battles wage as Bumpy attempts to control his area.
This is certainly a slick production that does a wonderful job at setting the mood and tone of the era, but by the end of the film one will seriously question its direction. The story is hard to follow and the plot lacks focus. There is plenty of action, violence and gun fire, but with the exception of one scene in the middle of the picture, very little suspense is offered. The characters spend a tremendous amount of time doing the same things over and over, without covering new or interesting ground. By the end of Hoodlum, the audience is left pondering exactly what was done or accomplished by any of the characters.
That is not to say that it isn't an entertaining film it is. Some scenes are marvelous and this picture is one of the best looking gangster movies made since The Untouchables. The excitement and vibrancy of the era is clearly demonstrated on the screen.
Some of the characters are also truly fabulous. While Andy Garcia seems to walk through his role as Lucky Luciano, Laurence Fishburne offers up a very credible and driven portrayal as Bumpy Johnson. Still, it is the always fabulous Tim Roth who steals absolutely every scene he is in. As the ruthless Dutch Schultz, his character combines frightening, gritty and absolutely hilarious moments. He proves to be one of the few characters in the film that seems to realize that this movie is supposed to just be a lot of fun. Roth seems to add a new twist to the whole mobster "schtick" and creates one of the most memorable crime boss characters in recent memory.
Hoodlum is certainly an enjoyable ride, albeit a disjointed one. The major problem is the story simply lacks any true content. While it is easy to get wrapped up in the fine performances and grandiose scenery, one eventually takes a step back to realize this film isn't really offering anything new and does not seem to want to go anywhere.
The story of Hoodlum is a lot like some of the old-time cars that get shot by tommy guns throughout the film. They're great looking old cars but they're all full of holes.
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Copyright © The Gazette 1997