The Film: Hoodlum (1997)

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The Principles: Bill Duke (Director).  Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Vanessa L. Williams, Andy Garcia, Cicely Tyson, Chi McBride, Clarence Williams III, Richard Bradford, William Atherton, Ed O’Ross, Loretta Divine, Queen Latifah, Mike Starr, Beau Starr, etc.

The Premise: Gangsters Bumpy Johnson (Fishburne) and Dutch Schultz (Roth) go to war over the control of Harlem’s gambling industry in the 1930s.

Is It Good?: It’s okay.  Duke is a fine director and virtually everyone involved gives a good performance.  That said, the film could use a bit of trimming and the script is a little too lackluster for the talent involved.  Hoodlum just meanders far too much for its own good, particularly in reference to the romance side of the tale.  Fishburne and Williams are both fine actors, but their chemistry never really clicked for me.  It’s an unfortunate thing, but it happens.  But hey, how often do you get to see Larry Fishburne go toe-to-toe with a sleazy Tim Roth in a gangster tale?  Or Mike & Beau Starr side-by-side as hitmen, with one singing “Silent Night” to a bodyguard while the other sneaks up behind and slits his throat?  Or Cicely Tyson going a little too over-the-top with an accent?

Looking back on the ’90s twenty years on is both an interesting and depressing thing, but not in the way you might expect.  It’s amazing how much more racially diverse films were then in terms of leads.  In addition to mainstays like Denzel Washington and Will Smith lighting up the box office, we seemingly had far more smaller Black leads fronting sizable efforts.  While he probably makes more money now, one could argue that Fishburne had a better career as a leading (and even supporting) man BEFORE doing The Matrix.  Just think about it for a minute.  Fled, Event Horizon, The Color Purple, King of New York, Boyz N The Hood, Othello, Deep Cover, Quicksilver, Bad Company, etc.  And you still had constant high profile efforts from (or at least co-starring) the likes of Wesley Snipes, Danny Glover, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ving Rhames, and (at least in the early 90s) Mario Van Peebles.  While it isn’t like we don’t have a wonderful assortment of actors (Elba, Ejiofor, Mackie, Williams, etc.), we seem to be getting less notable releases with African-American leads beyond those starring Denzel and Big Willie.  There is a case to be made for Terrence Howard, Jamie Foxx, Forrest Whitaker, and Don Cheadle…but the frequency of higher profile fare starring them and others doesn’t seem to be nearly as frequent.  One can only hope that changes as this new decade goes on.

Is It Worth A Look?: Sure.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it, but it makes for a nice Instant watch (which is exactly what I did here).  It has a great cast and is set during an interesting era, which makes it worthwhile even if it doesn’t quite gel like it should have.

Random Anecdotes: Laurence Fishburne also had a small role as Bumpy Johnson in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984).

Andy Garcia was allowed to wear the real Lucky Luciano’s pinkie ring for a scene in the film.

While set in New York, the film was shot in Chicago because the architecture was far closer to that of Harlem in the ’30s.

Cinematic Soulmates: Deep Cover, American Gangster, Harlem Nights, The Black Godfather, Black Caesar, Hell Up In Harlem, King of New York