Director Bill Duke has a solid gangster film in the badly titled “Hoodlum,” but there’s little doubt that this familiar crime movie would be a lot more impressive if Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” had never existed.
The cliches of the gangster genre were already in place when Coppola made “The Godfather” back in 1972. What Coppola did, however, was to stretch them out, making them all seem bigger and grander.
A lot of it was hot air, to be sure, but dipped in honey-coated cinematography, “The Godfather” brought a certain legitimacy and a luxuriant quality to an otherwise lowbrow, rat-a-tat-tat film form. The critics called it operatic - and it is.
It’s a majestic film.
“Hoodlum,” on the other hand, is closer to an operetta, which isn’t bad. It has much of the same burnished look and hot air, but it’s a small film that only aspires to bigness and greatness, never quite making it.
While the goings-on in “The Godfather” were akin to a smoothly run big business, “Hoodlum” is simply petty crime - small potatoes.
Dealing with a turf war over the ownership of the numbers racket in 1930s Harlem, Duke’s film dubiously tries to do for African Americans what “The Godfather” did for Italian Americans and what Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) did for Jewish Americans.
It gives credit where credit is due, making African Americans prominent in - and almost central to - big-time, all-American racketeering.
Just as Coppola and Leone glamorized their amoral characters, Duke exaggerates matters, taking a footnote in crime history and making it seem bigger and better than it probably ever was.
xxxx “Hoodlum” Location: Newport and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by Bill Duke, starring Laurence Fishburne, Vanessa Williams, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia, Cicely Tyson, Chi McBride, Loretta Devine, Queen Latifah and Clarence Williams III Running time: 2:12 Rating: R