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The numbers game was a major racket in 1930's Harlem, and African American crime boss Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) was it's undisputed king until psychotic white mobster Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) decided he wanted the lucrative district's gambling business for himself and was willing to get it by force. Schultz's nominal boss Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia) also wants a piece of the action, but he would rather negotiate as would the soft-spoken Johnson who is as much a gentleman as he is a vicious gangster. Johnson was at one time an idealist who, after his parole in 1934, returned to his native Harlem to work as a thug for Stephanie "Queen" St. Clair (Cicely Tyson). He is a hard case, and with ruthless efficiency he soon becomes her right-hand man. When she is eventually caught and sentenced to prison, she makes Bumpy promise to stay away from violence. He tries, but the sordid nature of his business makes it impossible. Community social worker Francine Huges (Vanessa Williams) sees some good in him and becomes emotionally involved in hopes of convincing him to leave criminal life. But the lure of power and easy money, coupled with a bloody war with Schultz are too much for Bumpy…

"With a stunning musical score from Elmer Bernstein, Hoodlum is a thrilling tale that takes a colourful look at Harlem when the numbers racket raged during the 1930s. Told from the point of view of the day’s Robin Hood, Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson, the flavour of Harlem and its many characters are differently textured threads in a tapestry of unrest, while Charles Bennett’s wonderful production design gives an authentic background for the action to take place. These were the days of the famous Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington’s blues and swing left its mark. The excesses of violence and hatred are vividly contrasted by the restraint and subtle emotions portrayed by the characters. Here’s where the ultimate emotional rewards lie. Laurence Fishburne heads a top cast and is magnificent as ‘Bumpy’: his commanding presence expertly conveys his ruthless cunning and ambition, while still retaining his gentle charm. The cast delivers memorable and engaging characters, offering us a chance for a complex and fascinating insight into the era. Hoodlum is a story of greed, power, loyalty and discrimination which crosses the barriers of position, class and race. With characters as diverse as the music styles - jazz & blues, opera, classical and gospel - Hoodlum deserves the necessary concentration to enjoy its maximum rewards."
Louise Keller

"The gangster pic has been a stable of the American cinema for over half a century, and remains the most intriguing genre of the industry. The Harlem gangster is one of the lesser facets of history, and after Hoodlum, one is less the wiser. What indeed should have been an enthralling and fascinating tale has a curious lack of energy. It's a slow and uninspiring affair and part of the problem is Laurence Fishburne, one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. Here, he seems to be going through the motions. There's a lack of spark in his performance, giving the character a certain superficiality, while Tim Roth goes the other way, overacting to excess. Only Cicely Tyson seems to hold things together, delivering a sensitive and intelligent performance as Harlem's crime matriarch. The film is also a historical mess, and is more fiction than fact. While on a technical level, Hoodlum impresses with its fine music, its glorious design and costumes, it lacks pace, coherence and the kind of energy that the genre demands."
Paul Fischer

"Totally disagreeing with Paul (above) I think Fishburne gives a superb, restrained performance, informed by his research into the real Bumpy Johnson. This film is the story of his rise – I don’t think he sees the error of his ways so much (as Leonard says, below) as he sees the need for a different approach. The film is peopled with flesh and blood characters, people whose lives are sliced open under Bill Duke’s relentless cinematic gaze. And the cast, from the stars like Tim Roth to Vanessa Williams and Cicely Tyson, all the way through to the supports, is never less then electrifying. Harlem in the 1930s was the basin of jazz and the lusty lives that crammed into its frantic streets are filled with stories of the human condition. As for the music, Elmer Bernstein avoids the cliches in his melodic, inventive and varied score, ranging from piano and timpanni to traditional orchestral settings. There is a scene, too, in which the use of a recognisable phrase from Puccini’s Tosca is woven into the film, at a dramatically opportune moment, and then the tenor’s major aria becomes source music for a scene of great stillnesss and sadness; this sort of creative leap is a bonus for those who revel in the music of movies, but even subliminally, the juxtaposition of sound and images works like an electric charge."
Andrew L. Urban

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Favourable: 2
Unfavourable: 1
Mixed: 1


See Andrew L. Urban's interview with LAURENCE FISHBURNE





CAST: Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia, Vanessa Williams, Chi McBride, Clarence Williams III, William Atherton

PRODUCER: Frank Mancuso Jr


SCRIPT: Chris Brancato


EDITOR: Harry Keramidas

MUSIC: Elmer Bernstein


RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes



AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 19, 1998

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