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Sunday, July 24, 2016
There's a certain number of kick-ass gangster flicks that I can depend on to deliver solid shoot-em-up action, thrills, and drama whenever I'm in the mood for that sort of thing. These include the GODFATHER trilogy, SCARFACE (both versions), GOODFELLAS, DILLINGER, HEAT, and a few precious other classic flicks of that nature. Now, joining the ranks of those dependable sources of gangster goodness is actor Bill Duke's sixth directorial effort, HOODLUM (1997, Olive Films).
The venerable Duke (PREDATOR, PAYBACK) helmed such films as A RAGE IN HARLEM and SISTER ACT 2 as a lead-up to this explosive tale of small-time Harlem hood Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne, THE MATRIX, APOCALYPSE NOW), who gets paroled from Sing Sing in the 30s only to get mixed up in a war between his old friend "Queen" Stephanie St. Clair (a regal Cicely Tyson) and notorious gang boss Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) over who gets to dominate the numbers racket in Harlem.
With Queen's arrest Bumpy is put in charge of her business, which he runs in a much more ruthless fashion against her wishes. This leads to a succession of action-packed, bullet-riddled setpieces with the black hoodlums battling Schultz's gunmen in the streets and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Duke knows how to stage this kind of action and the results are powerful.
In addition to such visceral thrills, however, is a truly interesting battle of wills between not only Bumpy and Dutch but also Mafia bigwig "Lucky" Luciano, played with his usual panache by Andy Garcia ("Vincent Corleone" in GODFATHER PART 3).
With these cunning businessmen plotting against each other, and Schultz's impulsive, borderline-insane antics adding an element of unpredictability to every encounter, the chess-like strategies of the three competitors in crime generate as much interest as the violence.
Fishburne is a strong presence as Bumpy Johnson, who begins the film as the default "good guy" since he's opposing the loathsome Schultz (Tim Roth of PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS has a field day in the role) but gradually lets his ruthlessness turn him into a coldblooded killer, dashing the hopes of his beautiful social-worker girlfriend Francine (Vanessa Williams in one of her best roles) of reforming him.
Also suffering the eventual fallout of their increasingly toxic relationship with Bumpy Johnson are his loyal best friend Illinois (Chi McBride) and Illy's beloved girlfriend "Pigfoot" Mary (Loretta Devine), along with various other colorful gang associates and adversaries. William Atherton (GHOSTBUSTERS) as a D.A. on Luciano's payroll and "Man in a Suitcase" star Richard Bradford (playing another crooked cop as he did in THE UNTOUCHABLES) also add their talents to the mix.
One of the film's biggest assets is Clarence Williams III as Schultz' right-hand man, "Bub" Hewlett, a black gangster who suffers constant indignities from his blatantly racist boss as well as being a pariah among his own people. Williams, whom I've always liked ever since his days as the soulful hippie-cop "Linc Hayes" on TV's "The Mod Squad", brings his own unique intensity to the role and makes "Bub" one of the film's most interesting and conflicted characters.
Period ambience is strong, with rich production values shot through with that familiar golden-hued visual nostalgia so prominent in similar historical pieces since the 70s. Old-time Harlem is well reproduced as are such locations as the fabled Cotton Club. Supporting players are good, including Queen Latifah, Mike and Beau Starr as a couple of hulking, pickaxe-wielding hitmen, and Ed O'Ross as one of Schultz' not-so-bright toadies.
The only drawbacks for me are a not-quite-satisfying ending, a tendency toward sudden melodrama at times, and, worst of all, a surprisingly overpowering and ill-conceived musical score by music maestro Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE). In fact, it seemed to me that the film as a whole would've been twice as effective without any music at all save for the period songs.
The DVD from Olive Films is in 1.85:1 widescreen with Dolby sound and subtitles in English. The sole extra is the film's trailer.
While not quite on the same level as those classic gangster pictures that I mentioned before, HOODLUM would be right at home among them as part of a gangland-themed movie marathon. If my experience is any indication, fans of this kind of entertainment aren't likely to be disappointed.
Buy it at Amazon.com: