Fishburne plays Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a numbers runner in Harlem during the Great Depression. The Harlem underworld is working very nicely in the 30s, and the top numbers racket is run by The Queen (Cicely Tyson), and Bumpy is her right hand man. With the Depression hitting hard, the unemployed are turning to numbers for hope, so things are looking up for the underworld in Harlem. Things are looking up for Bumpy as well, who sets his sights on a beautiful, but high principled social worker (Vanessa Williams).
However, the profits in Harlem are attracting the attentions of "Dutch" Schultz (Tim Roth), who wants to expand his criminal empire. His violent acts in Harlem force Bumpy to get an eye for an eye, plunging him into the darkest sides of underworld crime.
Laurence Fishburne does a good job as Bumpy, a character who could have easily been unsympathetic under the wrong actor. Even when doing low-down criminal activities, Fishburne seems to add a touch of class to the proceedings.
In fact, a problem early on seems to be too much class. The underworld dealings in Harlem under The Queen seem a bit too regal, too classy and too clean. If the film proceeded along these lines, it might not have mattered. But in the final stretch, the film does a complete about face, condemning the underworld lifestyle it went to such great lengths to glamourize.
The overall plot behind Hoodlum isn't bad, but the last twenty years have been chock full of this type of mob movie. There's nothing different, nor terribly involving about this story. It's well done for what it is, but what it is isn't much. At times, the film seems to become a bit self-important, as if it had a major statement (or any statment for that matter) to say. Instead, you're more likely to be bored than moved.
Even the look of the film is rather ordinary. The actors involved do a good job, but they're just not given much to work with.
Hoodlum has very little substance.