Picks and Pans Review: Hoodlum
Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (1906-68) was a black gangster who controlled the numbers racket in Harlem during the Depression. Hoodlum, a ham-handedly ambitious film, chronicles his blood-spattered rise to power in the mid-'30s. En route, the purposeful Johnson (Fishburne, who's flat-out sensational) learns that while crime may pay, it also costs. Friends are gunned down. The woman he loves walks out. And promises he makes are broken. In other words, Hoodlum has everything but the theme from The Godfather playing on its soundtrack.
As directed by Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem), the stylishly atmospheric Hoodlum is at its best when tracing the business machinations of Johnson and rivals Lucky Luciano (Garcia) and trigger-happy Dutch Schultz (Roth). It bogs down when it gets to Johnson's love life, giving him a fictitious sweetie (Williams), a do-gooder initially won over by his verse-writing. Of the cast, Garcia offers a smartly sly turn as the wily Luciano, and Roth happily chews scenery as vulgar Schultz, but Williams can't do much with her wan role besides look chic in slinky '30s gowns. In smaller roles, a portly Chi McBride and sassy Loretta Devine score big. (R)