Reviewed by Jason Coffman
Rating: 5.5 Beans
nyone who has seen the ad campaign for "Hoodlum" knows exactly what to expect: a slick, stylish gangster film with plenty of 1920s set pieces, 1920s slang, and three actors who look born to play the parts they have been given. Laurence Fishburne plays Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johson, the black gangster who goes up against Dutch Shultz (played by Tim Roth) and Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia). The film's only problem is that after the word "Hoodlum" disappears from the screen, the best part is over.
"Hoodlum" isn't so much a bad film as it is a film that should have been a two-night, prime-time miniseries. It looks like one. It sounds like one. And at over two hours, it certainly feels like one. Usually, I'm glad to sit through 2+ hour films; "Hoodlum" didn't need to be this long. Why? Well...
First off, we get about an hour of setting the story up. There are too many characters. It's not "Batman and Robin," mind you, wherein the audience was assaulted by new characters with no life; it's that in "Hoodlum," we have characters whose lives become too important to the filmmakers. Do we need that many scenes with Dutch Shultz and his henchmen to show how his black henchman (the always-entertaining Clarence Williams III) is treated like a slave and how Dutch is an insane bastard? No. Tim Roth looks like he's having fun, but he's on-screen way too much.
As the other leading men, Fishburne and Garcia do what they can with their parts. One of the film's strangest plot quirks is that as the story progresses, everyone seems to view Bumpy as a power-hungry madman. The problem? Fishburne plays Johnson with such restraint that there is no real reason for everyone to be freaking out. Every action he takes is logical and necessary in order to protect what is his. And of course, we are treated to more scenes of domestic discontent in Bumpy's life than gunfights (which are absolutely necessary for gangster pictures).
Lucky Luciano, on the other hand, is portrayed as the cool-headed but otherwise stereotypical Italian mafia guy. This is another of the film's crucial problems: it portrays many characters as flat stereotypes in trying to make a statement about how prevalent racism is in America, and how it has been that way since the 20s (something most audience members will undoubtedly already know). Every racial epithet in the book is slung (Bumpy is black, Luciano is Italian, there's an IRISH COP, for God's sake) with the curious exception of anti-semetic sentiment (Shultz is Jewish). Being beaten over the head with this tired message becomes frustrating after the first hour or so.
"Hoodlum" is not a terrible movie, but you'd be better off making things up in your head based on the cool video box art and ad campaign.
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