Film review: Hoodlum

Published: Saturday, Aug. 30 1997 12:13 a.m. MDT

Bill Duke, the veteran actor-turned-director, apparently intends his ambitious new movie "Hoodlum" to be an epic crime picture that will stand out in his filmography.

"Hoodlum" is a large-scale mob flick that chronicles the true story of a Harlem numbers racketeer who rises in the ranks, stands up to gangsters moving in on his territory and who ultimately finds himself questioning the loyalty of those around him.

Sound familiar?

The film also boasts an operatic flamboyance that is a bit too similar to Francis Ford Coppola's '70s classics "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II." But this one never quite hits the high notes.

In "Hoodlum," Laurence Fishburne stars as Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, paroled from Sing Sing as the film opens and quick to return to his Harlem neighborhood, where he can rejoin his fellow crooks.

Their racket is a penny-ante "numbers" game, an illegal lottery that appeals to destitute families during the Depression. And those pennies add up to thousands of dollars a day.

The cultured, poetry-writing, chess-playing Bumpy quickly hooks up with his cousin and best friend, "Illinois" Gordon (Chi McBride), and returns to work for "The Queen" (Cicely Tyson), who runs the biggest numbers game in Harlem.

And his first order of business is to protect The Queen from crass, vicious Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth, playing it way over the top). "The Dutchman" has moved in on Harlem's numbers games, demanding a cut. Schultz is also on the outs with other mob bosses, including his former mentor, Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia, also a bit ludicrous).

As Bumpy rises to the top of the organization, he takes the gloves off to go up against Dutch, eventually manipulating the other mob bosses outside Harlem in a revenge scheme. But along the way it costs him many friends, and the woman he loves (Vanessa L. Williams).

Wildly uneven, "Hoodlum" does boast a sharp eye for period detail and is wonderfully atmospheric in places. The film is also well cast, with Fishburne, McBride and Tyson particularly notable. (Roth and Garcia seem too loaded down with character tics, and Williams is merely window dressing.)

In addition to the central players, there are loads of fabulous "character" faces dotting the cinematic landscape. And director Duke shows a sure hand at staging violent action set-pieces (of which there are plenty).

Duke falls down, however, and demonstrates less confidence with smaller, more intimate character scenes, something that was also true of his "Rage in Harlem." Duke's "Deep Cover" is a leaner, more taut and polished effort. (Between those two, he directed "Sister Act 2" and "The Cemetery Club.")

"Hoodlum" seems like a step backward, as the film sags and drags in its final third and ends abruptly. (At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it's also too long.)

"Hoodlum" is rated R for considerable violence and gore, as well as torture, female nudity, profanity, racial epithets, vulgarity and sex.

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