We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The characters may be based on real people, but Bill Duke’s snazzy-looking re-creation of the Harlem numbers wars smells of shrinkwrap. He tips the balance—hard—from the start, informing us by way of an impressed prison warden that Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) is different from his fellow inmates: He reads books, plays chess, and writes poetry. Any movie willing to lay out the lead character’s flattering psychology like a hand of cards will not pass over any available method for the sake of total clarity. A crawl before the action sets the time, place, and players, and then the movie tells us all over again.

If Bumpy is another cultured criminal with a brilliant tailor, elegant tastes, and a thug’s soul, who better to act as an adversary than the coarsest, dumbest, shabbiest hood around—Dutch Schultz, played by Tim Roth with his usual zest. Schultz reveals his bankruptcy of morals and manners by eating an apple off the centerpiece and consistently misusing “fucking” as an adjective, which is some kind of achievement. The “good” gangster may be tortured by the decisions he’s made, but we aren’t afforded such ambiguity; who’s gonna side with a rat like Schultz? The movie itself has it in for this character, because of his conspicuous carelessness. Hoodlum is so sharp at the seams, its surface glossy and thick as meringue, that the very state of the guy’s shoes is an insult to its backers.

Once out of prison, Bumpy hooks up with his old pals, cousin Illinois (Chi McBride) and the ruler of the Harlem numbers racket, Madame Queen Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson). (It was a sad day for American acting when someone convinced this ramrod that she’s a national institution. In high school she was probably voted “Most Likely to Describe Herself to Barbara Walters as a Survivor.”) When the Queen is jailed after an ambush, Bumpy is left to “watch the bank,” taking over the operation and finding himself both challenged by Schultz, who wants to buy him out and thus have all of Harlem beholden to his brutal whims, and courted by an amused Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia, quickly Baldwinizing). He also meets a pretty neighborhood do-gooder named Francine (Vanessa Williams), who’s appalled but intrigued by his dangerous allure.

Hoodlum is too mindful of its cuffs to let them dangle in any real grit or grease. With Chicago passing for 1930s Harlem, it might as well have been shot on a sound stage—the clean, just-wetted-down streets look phony, as do the brand-new gilding on the store windows and the voluptuous antique cars, too pretty to harbor engines. While effective, the dialogue is straight from the factory, sometimes the Tarantino factory, the source of a (very funny and beautifully played) scene in which two meat-slab hired killers quiz each other on the best dishes in town as they go about their business.

On the occasions that the dialogue works, it is thanks to the actors’ interpretations, not the screenwriter’s smarts (TV writer Chris Brancato gets zero points for originality with this one). When the ineffectual Schultz tells Luciano, “Don’t fuck with me,” he gets exactly the look he deserves, and upon arriving at a quiet spot to talk, Luciano tells Bumpy, “I love this place”—an abandoned factory in a nowhere industrial part of town. But when a frustrated Francine yells at Bumpy that he’s not the man she fell in love with, that’s a stone lie—he was an unapologetic gangster from the start. A truly awful montage sequence anchors the movie’s center with a compendium of the worst visual signals—spinning newspapers with headlines addressing the subject at hand, calendar leaves to indicate the passing of time, guns aimed at the camera, slo-mo falling bits of paper, Bumpy snuggling Francine into a new fur coat.

Bill Duke has always had an eye (the uptown locale of A Rage in Harlem was full of personality), but lately that eye seems disconnected from his filmic instincts. There are flashes of that connection here, and occasionally they jolt the movie to another plane: Ambushed on the way to the opera, Queen grieves over her dead bodyguard as “E lucevan le stelle” soars on the soundtrack. Afterward, she and Bumpy sit stiffly on her couch and listen to the same aria on a gramophone; all the passion and sorrow on record is nothing to the black-folks’ opera they live every day. The camera pulls back as they stare at nothing, not touching, wordless.

But there are terrible sour notes, which add a little to the style of the thing but exact a high price from the story. Bumpy “liberates” Schultz’s numbers take and gives it back to the people—who are waiting in a soup line—by tossing money into the air for them to grab at. It’s not only insulting but uncharacteristic all around—it is especially unlikely that Francine, pausing in her good work, would laugh in delight at this.

Time-honored genre scenes and attitudes or very high-level stylization, or is one supposed to pass for the other? It’s hard to tell whether Duke is paying homage to decades of gangster movies by re-creating the classic moments in his own style or if he just overdrew at the cliché bank. Hoodlum is so mannered and its humor so broad that it sometimes dallies at the place where hyperalert meets lazy. Certainly the film world needs a black Once Upon a Time in America, but the history of black cinema is so short and so scattered that the only tradition it can call upon is someone else’s. Given what small chance they have had to make some movies, black directors are hot to honor the movies that got them interested in the art form—genre films from a black POV. If Duke wanted to make an enjoyable if not particularly believable genre film, he has succeeded. But if he wanted to honor the history he dabbles in—of black participation in the underground economy, of the scant opportunities afforded black men in the three-strike era of prohibition, segregation, and the Depression, of the thriving, roiling artistic hotbed that was prewar Harlem—he hasn’t done nearly enough.CP