Nashville Scene


REVIEWED: 09-15-97

In the mid-1930s, when America was in the throes of the Depression, New York City's vice lords carved up the metropolis into zones of operation. Lucky Luciano controlled prostitution, and Dutch Schultz ran illegal liquor; they shared the gambling interests. Meanwhile, dozens of small-time operators maintained niche markets in neighborhoods outside the purview of the criminal bosses. In Harlem, for example, a West Indian woman known as Madame Queen maintained a tight grip on the lucrative numbers racket.

Hoodlum retells the legend (based on fact) of a time when Schultz and Luciano attempted to commandeer Harlem's numbers game and run the Queen out. Standing against the interlopers--at great risk to himself and to his community--was Bumpy Johnson, a ruthless schemer who attempted to keep Harlem's crime ethnically pure by pitting Luciano and Schultz against each other.

Hoodlum has a great subject; too bad it's not a great film, or even a very good one. With the exception of Lawrence Fishburne, who plays Bumpy, the acting is either scenery-chewing or amateurish; Tim Roth's profane Schultz is the worst offender in the former category, while Loretta Devine's stereotypical sassy black mama anchors the latter. And though the cinematography by Frank Tidy is wonderfully atmospheric, his well-composed long shots are all but ruined by the impatient, choppy editing.

Director Bill Duke, whose films have ranged from the ridiculous (The Cemetery Club) to the sublime (Deep Cover) to somewhere in between (A Rage in Harlem), has to shoulder the blame for the film's general ineptitude. The incomprehensible action scenes and sluggish pacing are ultimately his responsibility.

He doesn't botch Hoodlum single-handedly, however. The script by Chris Brancato has insufficient scope for the story Duke wants to tell. The movie is rightfully focused on Bumpy, but it's too narrowly focused; by short-shrifting the screen time for Dutch and Lucky, we lose the larger context of crime in the city. For a crime film to work--be it The Godfather or Miller's Crossing--audiences have to know exactly who all the players are and what the stakes are. Otherwise, we don't understand why the crooks don't just shoot each other and be done with it. Hoodlum never tells us the rules.

Even worse, Brancato's screenplay seems to miss the enormous irony of Bumpy risking the lives of his people to ensure that his organization alone can prey upon their weakness for gambling. There is something cruelly heroic about Bumpy's vision: After all, who should control Harlem's rackets, if not the citizens of Harlem? But Hoodlum tends to play down the uglier side of the drama in favor of a weak romantic subplot between Bumpy and a pious nurse (Vanessa Williams). The nurse's token objections to the numbers, and to violence, exist only so that Bumpy and his crew can rebut them. This way, the filmmakers can reassure the audience that the story is about good versus evil, not evil versus greater evil.

The real story here is the continuing battle in serious action movies between empty, crowd-pleasing violence and uncompromising inquiry into human values. (This week's upcoming The Game should continue the struggle in an interesting way.) For the sake of blood and thrills, Duke and Brancato sell out a fascinating chapter in the history of America's racial conflict.

--Noel Murray

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