Gangster films are very comforting to me. I realise they’re not intended to be that way, but there’s a certain warm familiarity in the formula. I feel the same way about mystery-comedies or martial arts movies. When the monitor on the right is occupied by some big project — as it was today — the monitor on the left can be full of dapper suits, swell hats and tommy guns.
That’s right, it’s time for 1997’s Hoodlum, starring Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia, Vanessa Williams and just … oh, all sorts of people.
If history bios are a genre, true-crime gangster movies are a very specific subgenre. If I told you who the main characters in this film are and asked you to write out a plot summary, without telling you anything about the historical Ellsworth R. “Bumpy” Johnson, I bet you would write something like:
- Bumpy Johnson comes back to the old neighbourhood after getting out of jail.
- Harlem is being preyed on by gang lords, here represented by Tim Roth and Andy Garcia as Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano.
- Bumpy takes command of the local mob to fight off the white gangsters.
- In the meantime, he woos a good woman who disapproves of his life of crime but loves his sensitive soul.
- However, in order to beat his opponents, Bumpy becomes increasingly ruthless until the people he intended to protect don’t recognise him any more.
The only surprising deviation from the formula is that in the end Bumpy triumphs rather than going off to jail, since in fact he died a free man. And, fidelity-to-history wise, this movie benefits from the fact that it has a lot of characters to choose from who already have a legendary status in the American popular press. In addition to big names like Schultz and Luciano, you have lesser-known but still colourful characters like Stephanie St Clair, who ran a gambling racket in Harlem with Bumpy Johnson as her enforcer.
Other than that, you have the usual stock character types. Chi McBride is the funny best friend, Vanessa Williams is upright and noble (here represented by being a passionate Garveyite, even though she barely talks about anything Garveyish. You do see her handing out food to the poor and so on). There’s a fat Irish cop and a naive, idealistic young wannabe gangster and some grizzled old veterans and a black guy who works for Tim Roth and is all conflicted about it. You know the kind of thing.
The problem with making a good historical film is always simply that history resists being turned into a conventional narrative. That’s why films with historical settings are often satisfying but films about historical events aren’t as much (unless they’re very confined and selective, like Gettysburg). This film has that problem as well. The film ends with the murder of Dutch Schultz (which produced a weird and sometimes chilling ramble as Dutch lay dying of his wounds). This leads to the OK Corral problem — although the death of Schultz solves Bumpy’s strategic problem, it doesn’t resolve his personal plot in any way, really, though. After it happens there’s a scene where he goes into the church and the choir is singing and then he comes outside and there’s one of those baptism-metaphor rainstorms.
I was waiting for a caption to come up: “Bumpy Johnson remained a crime boss for 30 more years.”
So is it good? Iiiiiit’s OK. It’s super formulaic, but it’s an interesting look at a part of the Depression gangster era that doesn’t often get portrayed. And it’s got a lot of good people in it. Sometimes it’s a grey autumn day and you’re sitting inside writing and you just want to see Laurence Fishburne shoot some fools in a series of dapper outfits.