Ellsworth (Bumpy) Johnson ran the numbers game in 1930s Harlem. The subject of "Hoodlum," he emerges as a black Godfather --- sagacious, crafty and troubled. It's an ambitious subject that works in fits and starts and, while not totally successful, packs sufficient punch to hit its target audience and knock off a couple of good play weeks.
Ellsworth (Bumpy) Johnson ran the numbers game in 1930s Harlem. The subject of “Hoodlum,” he emerges as a black Godfather — sagacious, crafty, violent and troubled. It’s an ambitious subject and a mighty production that works in fits and starts and, while not totally successful, packs sufficient punch to hit its target audience and knock off a couple of good play weeks. The material has limited international appeal but should hit a bull’s-eye in domestic ancillaries.
At the center of the piece is Johnson’s (Laurence Fishburne) battle with ruthless mobster Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) for control of illegal gaming in the neighborhood. More than color separates the two gangsters. Johnson is a self-educated, soft-spoken and strategic man to Schultz’s vulgar, garish hothead. The white syndicate — chaired by the politically savvy Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia) — wants to work out a deal, but Schultz takes an “I saw it first” stance that spells trouble.
When Johnson is paroled from prison in 1934, he heads back to Harlem, and his cousin Illinois Gordon (Chi McBride) gets him work as an enforcer for the iron-willed Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), aka the Queen. With his combination of style and cold-bloodedness, he ascends quickly, and his position is cemented when his boss is railroaded into a prison term for racketeering. She makes him promise “no violence,” an oath he cannot possibly maintain.
Chris Brancato’s screenplay turns on that conflict — one’s word vs. the reality of the street. Though Johnson maintains a cool demeanor, he’s torn over how his options chafe against his true nature. Francine Hughes (Vanessa Williams), a community social worker, recognizes his softer side and, against her better judgment, becomes involved with the crime lord. Both will change as a result, for better and worse.
Obviously influenced by “The Godfather,” “Hoodlum” effects an operatic tone to embrace themes of family and illegal pursuits. The carnage — comic and overblown — punctuates a love story and the tale of Johnson’s efforts to do good by giving money back to the community in jobs and legit business.
The film falters in developing the character’s dramatic arc. He evolves from idealist to ruthless, isolated boss without the requisite transitions. When he ultimately sees the error of his ways, it lacks the power or credibility of revelation.
Director Bill Duke renders the period saga with passion, but lacks the sort of fluid, organic style the material requires; the film falls short of its aim for mythic proportion. Still, there’s a vibrancy that’s engrossing, if uneven.
Fishburne excels at conveying Johnson’s turmoil and the irony of a gentleman killer-bandit. But he could have let more of the man’s humble background leak through the cultivated facade, rather than allowing a kind of actor’s vanity to pervade the performance. The sense of excess also gnaws at Roth’s portrayal of Schultz. Though partially drawn from history, he’s more of a latter-day “Public Enemy” James Cagney; had his perf been reined in, Schultz would have provided more than just a brute challenge to Johnson.
The supporting work, however, is largely nonpareil. Williams is a strong, effective presence in an underwritten role, and Tyson, too long absent from the bigscreen, has fire and passion that are mesmerizing. Also registering in the large ensemble are McBride, Clarence Williams III as a conflicted black gangster working for Schultz, and Richard Bradford as a corrupt police captain.
The two most interesting characters are drawn from fact — Luciano and Thomas Dewey (William Atherton), then state prosecutor. Garcia makes the most of the shrewd, elegant eminence grise of an enforcer. He’s simultaneously charismatic and chilling. Dewey, who was responsible for Luciano’s extradition, is painted as a gargoyle totally composed of ambition, and Atherton squanders an opportunity by not providing the character with shadings.
While editorial decisions are a bit jarring, tech credits are otherwise lush, from the extremely handsome images of cameraman Frank Tidy to a florid score from Elmer Bernstein.
“Hoodlum,” like its principal characters, suffers from ambition. But better to aim high when most can only conform.
Dutch Schultz - Tim Roth
Francine Hughes - Vanessa Williams
Lucky Luciano - Andy Garcia
(Queen) Stephanie St. Clair - Cicely Tyson
Illinois Gordon - Chi McBride
Bub Hewlett - Clarence Williams III
Capt. Jerrod Foley - Richard Bradford
Thomas Dewey - William Atherton
Pigfoot Mary - Loretta Devine
Sulie - Queen Latifah
Whispers - Paul Benjamin
Albert Salke - Mike Starr
Jules Salke - Beau Starr
Bo Weinberg - Joe Guzaldo
Lulu Rosenkrantz - Ed O'Ross
Calvin - J.W. Smith
Tee-Ninchy - Eddie (Bo) Smith Jr.