1930s. New York City. For years, Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson) has been the benevolent queen of the Harlem underworld, running a successful numbers game and protecting her community from outsiders. However, psychotic crime boss Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) is determined to move into Harlem and take over the rackets for himself. With the weary support of Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), Schultz thinks that he is unstoppable but he did not count on the intervention of Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne). Just paroled from Sing Sing, Bumpy is determined to do whatever has to be done to keep Schultz out of Harlem.
When I reviewed The Cotton Club yesterday, I knew that I would have to do Hoodlum today. Hoodlum and The Cotton Club are based on the same historic events and both of them feature Laurence Fishburne in the role of Bumpy Johnson. Of the two, Hoodlum is the more straightforward film, without any of the operatic flourishes that Coppola brought to The Cotton Club. Fisburne is surprisingly dull as Bumpy Johnson but Tim Roth goes all in as Dutch Schultz and Andy Garcia is memorably oily as the Machiavellian Luciano. Hoodlum is about forty minutes too long but the gangster action scenes are staged well. Bumpy Johnson lived a fascinating life and it is unfortunate that no film has yet to really do him justice, though Clarence Williams III came close with his brief cameo in American Gangster. (Interestingly enough, Williams is also in Hoodlum, playing one of Shultz’s lieutenants.)
One final note: Hoodlum features William Atherton in the role of District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey. Atherton plays Dewey as being a corrupt and sleazy politician on Luciano’s payroll. In real life, Dewey was known for being so honest that Dutch Schultz actually put a contract out on his life after he discovered that Dewey could not be bribed. I am not sure why Hoodlum decided to slander the subject of one of America’s most famous headlines but it seems unnecessary.