Hoodlum (1997) A Retro Movie Review
This film caught my attention when doing the What’s New On VOD: Amazon Prime May 2016 article, I recalled seeing Hoodlum in the theatres back in 1997, and enjoying it immensely.
Two things in that statement that shouldn’t be read as a ringing endorsement for Hoodlum:
- Back in 1997 if you didn’t see a film in the theatres than, you pretty much had to wait 6 months to a year to see the film.
- I was eighteen years old.
Regardless I thought I’d check Hoodlum out and see if it still hold up nearly twenty years later. For this exercise I resisted checking out Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB so I wouldn’t be swayed by other reviews and be inclined to side one way or the other.
So let’s dive in.
I recalled little of this film, other than it starred Laurence Fishburne and that it was more of a stylish piece of cinema. Hoodlum is based on the “Godfather of Harlem” Ellsworth “Bumpy” John
son, and his arch nemesis Dutch Schultz. Both have been portrayed as auxiliary characters in many gangster movies and TV shows such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
The films premise is based on the “numbers” game (basically an old-timey version of the lottery), this was a huge racket in the depression era and “The Queen” (Cicely Tyson) controlled Harlem. That is until a bully mob boss, Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth), felt that he wanted a piece of the pie. Schultz’s boss Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia) also wants a piece of the action, however Dutch and Lucky do not share the same ideology. In fact Dutch’s bratty borderline psychotic nature creates more issues for Lucky than the money is worth.
Enter Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, fresh out of prison ready to reclaim the life he lost, and defend the queens territory.
My father taught me many things…keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. – Godfather
The best part of Hoodlum is the performances.
Tim Roth is simply amazing as Dutch Schultz and clearly steals the show in terms of performances, this is no small feat considering that Fishburne is on top of his game as well. Both play opposite sides of the spectrum, Fishburne is a more stoic, composed as Bumpy Johnson, and Roth is impudent and impulsive as Schultz. The supporting cast, particularly Illinois (Chi Mcbride), and Pigfoot Mary (Loretta Devine) were superb. I nearly forgot how good Andy Garcia was as well, perhaps he typecasted himself into the Italian gangster role, and it’s very easy to overlook him because well he’s playing a mobster yet again. While Garcia doesn’t really get out of his comfort zone, Garcia nails it as Lucky Luciano – the lazy eye was a nice touch.
You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word. – Untouchables
Hoodlum is a paste by the numbers gangster film.
While the performance were great, there just wasn’t a lot for the cast to work with. Instead of delving into either Bumpy or Schultz’s motivations, Hoodlum chooses to hit all of the typical gangster genre notes.. and
they were all played like an elementary school recital – done with great intentions and enthusiasm but the end result was predictable and shitty.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh but the plot is so damn straight forward it completely derails the fantastic score, and stylish cinematography by Director Bill Duke. What’s really infuriating is that this genre is so crowded (particularly in the nineties) that you absolutely have to do something to set your film apart.
Take Tarantino’s Reservoir Dog’s for example: there was nothing new about the plot or story there, a bank heist, an undercover cop etc.. But the way it was sequenced and shot set it apart from any gangster film before it.
I feel that the studio and Duke felt that they had the star power to pull in numbers and reviews, and said eh screw the story. It’s a shame as good as the performances were in Hoodlum, a little bit of work in developing the story could have potentially put this film near the top of the all time Gangster films.
Seeing that Hoodlum is free on VOD at the time of this writing, I’m not going to say don’t watch it – as Tim Roth makes it totally worth it, but I certainly wouldn’t throw hard cash down to see this film.