Friday, April 10, 2009


Snap-brim fedoras, vintage autos, blazing Tommy guns, corrupt public officials and greedy mobsters battling it out over turf rights recur throughout director Bill Duke’s violent, 1930s’ racketeering epic “Hoodlum” (**1/2 out of ****) a pictorially authentic actioneer that evokes memories of the classic Robert Stack television series “The Untouchables.” Although “Hoodlum” boasts a top-drawer cast, including Laurence Fishburne, Vanessa Williams, Tim Roth, and Andy Garcia, this lavishly mounted but uneven gangster saga suffers from its rambling length, garrulous script and a shortage of shoot-outs. As the first major film to headline the crimes of Harlem’s infamous Black Godfather Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, this production offers a novel departure for audiences that are weary of superheroes, female warriors and hard-bitten cops who have were crowding the big-screen when “Hoodlum” appeared in 1997.

The Chris Brancato screenplay introduces Bumpy in 1934 as he exits Sing Sing Prison. Duke and Brancato exert great pains to differentiate Bumpy from the typical African-American mobster. He peruses books, plays chess, and pens poetry. As literate as Bumpy is, he can pull a trigger or wield a knife without a pang of remorse when somebody threatens a person who he loves. Like “The Godfather II” and “Once Upon A Time in America,” “Hoodlum” charts the rise of the Godfather of Harlem in a ruthless game of survival that claims his best friend Illinois Gordon (Chi McBride of “I, Robot”) and leaves Bumpy forever altered by the gory experience. Ostensibly, you won’t see anything in “Hoodlum” that you haven’t seen in dozens of other crime films. “Hoodlum” features notorious real-life racketeers such as Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth of “Pulp Fiction”) and Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia of “Godfather III”) as well as corrupt special prosecutor Thomas Dewey (William Atherton of “The Sugarland Express). When Bumpy arrives in Harlem, he watches a numbers runner working for Madam Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson) who is the so-called ‘Queen of the Numbers.’ The Dutchman craves to absorb the territory that the Madam has struggled for a decade to build into the number one home-grown Harlem business. Bumpy vows to prevent any takeover by the Irish mob.

Meanwhile, the boorish, grubby, low-life Schultz refuses to appease Lucky or Bumpy. Along the way, Bumpy falls in love with righteous Francine (Vanessa Williams) who wants him to find respectable work. Bumpy refuses to stoop to menial employment. When Dutch cannot kill the Madam, he bribes a judge to send her to the pen. Bumpy supervises the Madam’s empire at her request during her absence. Bumpy’s bloodthirsty methods clash with her live-and-let-live notions. Eventually, Luciano and Bumpy strike a deal, and Dutch finds himself out in the cold. Suddenly, gangster gunfire chops down a young, innocent numbers runner. Now, Bumpy’s cronies think that he has gone too far. Francine bails out on him more out of the formulaic dictates of the story than for any motivated reason. So do the filmmakers. The second half of the movie shows Bumpy losing favor with everybody.

The film’s publicity notes claim that “Hoodlum” is complete fiction, but historical characters populate the story. Of course, movies rarely recreate history with any fidelity. History is more chaotic than dramatic, so filmmakers recast it to fit their dramatic formulas. One way is by cutting the number of characters. Refusing to portray these events as they actually occurred, Duke and Brancato blow a fantastic opportunity to exploit their melodramatic potential. Duke, whose directorial credits include “Deep Cover” and “A Rage in Harlem,” wrestles with the obvious lapses in Brancato’s script. The length of “Hoodlum” may have been cut by the studio to squeeze in more showings in a single evening. The action grows and takes on an episodic quality when Bumpy becomes callous. After the first half, the film’s momentum bogs down, and “Hoodlum” loses its air of fun. The time has come for the characters to pay the piper.

The filmmakers embrace a curious morality. In most gangster movies, the hoodlum hero must die. Bumpy gets off easy, as does Luciano and only Dutch antes up with his life. Duke and Brancato allow their criminals greater leniency. The gangsters are less cancerous than the defenders of justice. Consequently, “Hoodlum” concludes on an anti-climax. Moreover, the filmmakers neglect to post an epilogue about Bumpy’s outcome. For the record, the gangster who hires Shaft to find his kidnapped daughter in “Shaft” is a variation on Bumpy” as is the kingpin mobster in “American Gangster” with Denzel Washington. The problem with Brancato’s script is its uneven quality. The action-packed first half is more entertaining than the tedious, long-winded second half. The filmmakers glorify Bumpy initially as a Robin Hood gangster who steals from a rival mob and gives to Harlem’s starving citizens.

Fishburne is riveting as a tough-as-nails but warm-hearted criminal. Roth takes top acting honors, however, as Dutch Schultz and looks like he had a ball exaggerating those vile elements in Schultz’s psychotic behavior. Garcia epitomizes sartorial urbanity as the peace-making Italian gangster who divides his time between Bumpy, Dutch, and special prosecutor Dewey. Williams brings substance and physical beauty to the role of Bumpy’s mistress, but the Brancato script jettisons her too early from the action when she finds her lover’s gunplay repellent. Atherton’s egotistical special prosecutor bristles with revulsion in his dealings with these crooks, but accepts their bribes. The filmmakers make the repressive Dewey appear particularly loathsome, a Judas whose contempt for the mob is exceeded only by his mockery of justice. Clarence Williams III has finally landed the kind of role that should banish the typecasting stigma of his 1960s “Mod Squad” character. As Schultz’s fearless right-hand henchman, Williams III breathes a cold-hearted, steely presence into his hired gun that makes him another stand-out in a stellar car.

Veteran black character actor Paul Benjamin scintillates in a minor role as a gravel-voiced gunsel named Whisper who sports a razor-slash scar across his throat. Benjamin has not appeared in a role this invigorating since he played a convict opposite Clint Eastwood in “Escape from Alcatraz. The vastly underrated actor Richard Bradford generates nothing but disgust as a corrupt police captain who takes special delight in torturing his gangster victims. Ironically, the most despicable characters that emerge from “Hoodlum” are not the criminals but the lawmen.

Despite some flavorful dialogue, “Hoodlum” plays it straight down the line as a dramatic shoot’em up. Audiences expecting a variation on Eddie Murphy’s “Harlem Nights” may leave this Fishburne film disappointed. Although it’s no “Godfather,” “Hoodlum” is definitely above-average and far beyond those quickie classics of the 1970s that headlined Fred Williamson as the black Caesar of crime in “Hell Up in Harlem.” If you enjoy gangster epics, “Hoodlum” is worth the price of admission. Some critics have savaged “Hoodlum” for its debatable morality. Indeed, Bumpy rises to the summit of his profession. At fade-out, however, Duke and Brancato show that the gangster’s life, in spite of its many frills, is one that leaves you standing alone in the rain outside the church door without a friend.