Originally written for The Occidental and headlined: Hoodlum: Nothing More than Box Office Bully.
To look at the posters and previews, Hoodlum has all the makings of a great (or at least entertaining) gangster film: a strong cast (Laurence Fishbourne, Tim Roth, Vanessa Williams, and Andy Garcia), a Depression-era setting, and a basis in real life — the adventures of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, Dutch Shultz, and Lucky Luciano. As a gangster fan, I was looking forward to it a great deal.
Unfortunately, it is strong in one area only — some of the acting is excellent. Otherwise, it’s bad. The plot is bad. The script is worse. The music is overblown and pretentious. The symbolism varies between whacking you over the head with its meaning and being incomprehensibly obscure. The violence is so unpleasant that it can’t be enjoyed.
Now, as I mentioned, the acting is often good — considering the script. In the title role, Fishbourne is excellent, although the script forces him to play a character far more shallow than his obvious talent can handle. Vanessa Williams struggles valiantly to play a character for whom there is no motivation (as Bumpy’s girlfriend, she goes from “I love you” to “I’m leaving you,” with no scenes to show why.), and almost manages to make her believable. Tim Roth, as Shultz, is forced to play yet another psychopath; fortunately, Roth is able to have a good time in the role. When he’s not being so evil that the audience can’t even enjoy hating him, Shultz is the most entertaining character in the film.
The plot and script, however, combine to take this movie into unredeemable depths of awfulness. Hoodlum tries to do too many things at once and ends up botching them all. It wants (among other things) to be about the plight of African Americans, show strong women, be a commentary on violence and revenge, remind us of the need for interracial solidarity, demonstrate the power of intellect over brute force, point out the importance of personal honor, and proclaim that family ties are vital. With a brilliant script, that might have been p9ossible. However, the script here is not perfect, and the result is a mishmash of images, symbolism, and cliches — none of which work.
In a great film, the music helps tie everything together, reflecting the feelings of the characters and the audience, creating suspense, drama, romance. In Hoodlum, the music tries to do that, but it is full of every musical cliche in the book. Resounding trumpet fanfares ring when our hero does something heroic, violins weep when he’s sad, etc. It made me wince when I wasn’t busy laughing at the absurdity of it.
As an added insult, the characters of Dutch Shultz and Lucky Luciano (real-life gangsters, as you may recall) are shamefully warped. Dutch isn’t nearly as famous as Lucky, which gives some excuse in his case, but Lucky Luciano is a big name in Mafia literature, and they could have easily found out that although he did run a prostitution ring ( as they show in the film ), he was also a quiet, intellectual businessman, not the arrogant, oily, womanizing sleazebag of the film.
When it comes to discussing the violence in Hoodlum, I’ll be the first to admit that I like action movies, and violence doesn’t usually bother me. But much of the mayhem in Hoodlum is the one kind I can’t enjoy, a far cry from the bang-bang action of films like Terminator 2 and Commando — it’s personal, humiliating, and unnecessary. Watching as one of the good guys gets tortured to death isn’t my idea of fun. Nor is seeing an innocent man blown away while pleading for his life. Although there is plenty of the requisite tommy-gun lead-spraying, there is too much of the other brand of violence for me to enjoy this movie.
So, what can I tell you about Hoodlum? Well, if you know nothing about gangsters (especially the real-life ones this film claims to be based on), and don’t mind a terrible script and gut-wrenching violence, you might like this movie.
But I wouldn’t bet on it.