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.
Homicide Detective Jake “Mouth” Penucci (Ed O’Ross) is the most hated man on the police force. His partners hate him. His ex-wife hates him. His daughter will hate him once she is old enough. Penucci is obnoxious, tells terrible jokes, and is haunted by his abusive childhood. The only person that does not hate Penucci is Jill (Robey), who works in the records office. Jill and Penucci are soon an item but it turns out that Jill has some kinky tastes, which make even Penucci nervous. She wants him to beat her during sex and sometimes ask him to pretend that she’s a little girl. At the same time that Penucci is trying to figure out how to have a normal relationship with Jill, he has been assigned to catch Rapunzel, a female serial killer who only targets men who have been accused of sexually abusing their daughters. Could it all be connected?
Play Nice is a standard 1990s Skinemax neo-noir, distinguished by a few surreal dream sequences and performances that are better than what’s typically found in films like this. The mystery would be interesting except that there is only one possible suspect so it is not at all surprising when that suspect is eventually revealed to be Rapunzel. For many Skinemax watchers, the film’s main appeal was probably the beautiful Robey appearing in several nude scenes but Play Nice is also memorable for giving character actor Ed O’Ross a rare starring role. O’Ross has spent almost his entire movie career playing corrupt cops and psychotic gangster but he does a pretty good job as Penucci, even if Penucci is not a typical hero. Every good character actor should get at least one chance to play a lead and O’Ross makes the most of it in Play Nice.