Take a Drink: every time “The Numbers” are referenced
Take a Drink: whenever old timey nicknames like “Dutch” and “Bumpy” are used (Choose one, because you’ll kill yourself if you do them all.
Body-count Bingo: Down a shot for each onscreen death
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Three Beers) –
In the early 1930s New York, gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) runs the numbers racket at the behest of Harlem crime boss “Madame Queen” St. Clair. Looking for additional income opportunities following the end of prohibition, gangster “Dutch” Schultz (Tim Roth) sets his sights on Harlem, with plans to take the Numbers racket over.
In the financially trying times of the Great Depression, the Numbers game is the only real going business in Harlem. As Bumpy fights to maintain control of the business, his reputation for generosity crosses paths with his predilection for violence.
Director Bill Duke’s crime epic is a loving throwback to the classic gangster films of the 1930s-40s.
Much like films such as White Heat, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, Hoodlum features a simple story of a crime boss’s rise to power as he battles rival gangs, faces off with the police, and ostracizes friends and family to move ahead. These are all stories we’ve seen and heard before, but because the film focuses on Harlem; Hoodlum finds fresh new ground to tread. Crime films set during the first half of the 20th century tend to focus on the Italian and Irish mob, often ignoring the fact that organized crime was no less prevalent in predominantly black neighborhoods. While gangsters like Al Capone, “Whitey” Bulger, and “Lucky” Luciano ring out in the popular consciousness, it is fascinating to see a long-ignored area of criminal history played out on the big screen.
Hoodlum feels like it was made in a different decade than the 1990s. Performers such as Andy Garcia, Clarence Williams III, and Tim Roth deliver character turns with a high degree of theatricality. This helps communicate the film’s themes clearly, while moving the story forward at a brisk pace, even as it tops the 2 hour mark.
While much of the film’s dialogue and its performances is clearly stylized to be big and melodramatic, apparently Laurence Fishburne didn’t get the memo. He plays his character very straight, resulting in some tonal clashes. Sometimes the film feels like it is borrowing too many elements from past gangster films, because depending on which actor is speaking the audience may have trouble knowing whether the filmmakers wanted to make the next Godfather, or the next Scarface. Director Duke would have been well advised to either rein in the more eccentric elements of the film, or push his lead actor into a bigger performance.
Pulpy Gangster films typically end with the lead antihero being punished for his or her crimes. Instead, the screenwriters saw fit to tack on a last-minute redemption moment which not only feels out of step with the rest of the film, but also comes without any real foreshadowing.
Fishburne’s character “Bumpy” is an unabashed, unapologetic criminal throughout the film- if they were going to have him repent his ways, some build-up needs to be made showing him as genuinely headed on that track.
Feel like a gangster film, but have already worn out all the classics? This will see you through the dry season quite nicely.