One of the defining marks of a great actor is the power he’s able to wrest from moments of sheer quiet. Laurence Fishburne has this brooding authority in Hoodlum (United Artists). As Ellsworth ”Bumpy” Johnson, who rises to the top of the Harlem numbers rackets during the mid-’30s and fights to win back the neighborhood from the vicious interloper Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth), Fishburne, suave and imperious in his natty period suits, creates an unabashedly romantic outlaw, a gangster-poet who sees crime as the only available way to empower his people. The ruthlessly intelligent Fishburne always holds something in reserve. Bumpy’s molten stare suggests a hidden motive that could be greed or egotism or, perhaps, buried rage at the opportunities denied him because of his color.
Hoodlum compresses the life of the actual Bumpy Johnson into the familiar sweeping arc of the Hollywood gangster melodrama: the consolidation of power, the sexy-saintly moll, the brutal turf wars. The director, Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem), stages all of this with proficient confidence, yet he never truly summons the operatic power of the genre — the pulp tragedy of ambition built on (and drowned in) blood. Still, this is Duke’s most accomplished job of direction yet. He gets a juicy performance out of Tim Roth, who makes the vile, racist Dutch Schultz shockingly vulgar, the kind of petty sadistic runt who’d kill a man out of sheer impatience at having to listen to him beg for his life. B