HOODLUM - KULL THE CONQUEROR
THE FULL MONTY - EXCESS BAGGAGE

HOODLUM

It's 1934 Harlem and Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson is fresh out of Sing Sing. Bumpy returns to his old neighborhood to find vicious gangster Dutch Schultz trying to muscle in on the lucrative numbers racket. The Dutchman selects Bumpy's friend and mentor, Madame Queen Stephanie St. Clair, as the target for his hostile takeover of the uptown numbers game. The ensuing gang war goes downtown and involves the most powerful lords of organized crime in New York, including the suave, but dangerous, Lucky Luciano.

Robin ROBIN:
"Hoodlum" stars Laurence Fishburne as the Robin Hood-like Bumpy Johnson, leading an all-star cast with Tim Roth as the despicable Dutch Shultz, Cicely Tyson as Madame Queen, and Andy Garcia as the sloe-eyed, but handsome, gang leader, Lucky Luciano. Also appearing are Clarence Williams III, Vanessa Williams and William Atherton as corrupt city prosecutor and future presidential candidate, Thomas E. Dewey.

"Hoodlum" is a solid entry into the gangster movie pantheon, but does not elevate itself into the realm of the great gangland films, such as "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas." There's an inherent clinical feeling to "Hoodlum" with the story not delving beneath the surface of the characters portrayed. Luckily, the vast talent of this well chosen cast helps to give the illusion of depth of character even if the material and story do not. One subplot, involving a love interest between Bumpy and Francine (Vanessa Williams), a social worker who becomes Bumpy's conscience, tries to delve into the kinder side of the gangster, but doesn't have the desired effect and feels tacked on.

Fishburne, as Bumpy, has real charisma and is believable as the ambitious, yet righteous, criminal. He portrays a man with the ruthlessness to get the job done, but with a loyalty to those who believe in him. Bumpy's relationship with Madame Stephanie is multilayered, from the mother/son-like kinship to his ferocious protection of her and her business. Cicely Tyson is a real professional, lending an elegance and dignity (and savageness equal to Bumpy's) to her portrayal of the Harlem Queen of Policy.

Tim Roth as the legendary Dutch Schultz proves, once again, he is a brilliant character actor. Playing the camp factor to the hilt, Roth gives Schultz a sleazy resonance combined with innate cruelty that make him both funny and scary. He doesn't go beyond this, but is having one helluva good time along the way.

Andy Garcia, as Lucky Luciano, gives a subtle elegance to his character, coming across more as a high powered corporate executive than a gang boss. This is intentional, I think, because it gives the mob the near-legitimacy it achieved in its heyday of the 30's. Garcia, with one eye partially shut, is very polite but always with a menacing edge that will brook no unrest in the syndicate, especially if it interrupts the flow of money into the mob coffers.

The rest of the cast, from Clarence Williams III as Schultz henchman Bub Hewlett to Chi McBride as Bumpy's best friend, Illinois Gordon, flesh out the supporting and background characters. Another couple of gems of supporting characters are brothers Mike and Beau Starr as pickax wielding hitmen, Albert and Jules Salke. The time this pair have on screen is one of those special moments in film - I won't give it away!

The screenplay, by Chris Brancato, is based on material collected by co-producer Paul Eckstein. Rather than try to cover the life of Bumpy Johnson, it focuses on the gang war over the numbers racket with Schultz. This is economical writing and allows the story to focus on a bit of unknown gangland Americana.

Director Bill Duke ("A Rage In Harlem," "Deep Cover") has a good eye for the gangster genre, eliciting strong performances and combining them with a well-paced story that entertains during its 2+ hour runtime. Duke uses some of the techniques originally used in the films to which he pays homage, chronicling the passing of violent years with a montage of shoot outs, gangland hits, newspaper headlines and calendar pages falling away. It's an old way to mark the passage of time, but it works well here

"Hoodlum" is solid, though not great, gangster movie and is a good choice for a late summer movie going selection. Considering the subject matter, the film's final message is a positive one and I give "Hoodlum" a B.

Laura LAURA:
It's unfortunate that the title "Hoodlum," an archaic term, was chosen for a film about one of the great New York mob wars - the attempted infiltration of the Harlem numbers racket by the infamous Dutch Shultz (Tim Roth, "Rob Roy"). Although Shultz and Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia, "The Godfather III") are well known figures, the man who managed to outwit them both and become a hero of Harlem, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne, "Othello," "Boyz in the Hood"), is little known today. It's his story that's told in "Hoodlum," directed by Bill Duke ("A Rage in Harlem," "Menace to Society").

The numbers racket in 1930's Harlem was run by and benefitted the community's own. A Creole woman known as 'the Queen' (Cicely Tyson) owned the numbers' bank and lived in the luxury befitting her position. When the fearless poet Bumpy returned to her fold after a long stint in prison, he found notorious mobster Shultz muscling his way into the Queen's territory. Shultz had the benefit of cops in his pocket, as well as Luciano's connections with Thomas Dewey (William Atherton), and used these connections to have the Queen arrested (after an unsuccessful ambush attempt). After that, he had to reckon with Bumpy, who the Queen entrusted her bank to.

"Hoodlum" liberally uses fictional characters to show the arc of Bumpy's character development from a sensitive man who happened to make his living illegally to the powerful and ruthless 'black Godfather.' Chi McBride gives a comic and touching performance as Bumpy's cousin and best friend Illinois. Vanessa Williams ("Eraser") is Bumpy's love interest, a well educated and beautiful charity worker who at first rejects his lifestyle, then succumbs to his charm. Loretta Devine ("Waiting to Exhale") provides lots of color as Pigfoot Mary, Illinois' married lover.

Laurence Fishburne is a fine actor and his performance anchors "Hoodlum," but its not the most sparkling. Tim Roth, always interesting, gives a manically amusing turn as the profane Dutch. Garcia is a wry and intelligent Luciano. It's great to see Cicely Tyson return to the screen as the regal "Queen," who won't be beaten by, but fears Shultz. The most exhilirating support comes from Mike and Beau Starr as the Salke brothers, pickax hitmen who riff on where the best food items are to be found in New York (they only agree on Nathan's for hot dogs) while setting up their hit on Bumpy - one brother even gives a positively choir-like rendition of "Silent Night" in the hallway leading to Bumpy's apartment - a truly great movie moment.

Production values are very good, with Chicago substituting for New York, although initially things seemed a bit too 'clean,' almost giving a back lot feel. The film's well paced, easily carrying its almost two and a half hour run time.

"Hoodlum" aspires to be a black version of "The Godfather," and while it doesn't reach that pinnacle, it tells a story that's new while featuring known elements with strong themes of religion and redemption.

B


KULL THE CONQUEROR

TV's "Hercules," Kevin Sorbo, is "Kull, the Conqueror," a warrior in the mythical land of Valusia who wishes to fight for the King's Army, but is rebuffed by the haughty Taligaro as being a mere barbarian. In an odd twist of fate, Kull himself assumes the King's crown, and immediately takes such liberal actions as freeing the Valusian slaves and informing his harem he will sleep with no woman who's not willing. This endears him to the people, but creates havoc among the higher born. The 3,000 year old 'Red Witch,' Akivasha (Tia Carrere, "Wayne's World"), is awoken and seduces Kull into marriage in a plot to retake her kingdom while the lowly servant Zareta (Karine Lombard, "The Firm") uses her talent to read cards to aid Kull, who Zareta loves but wants on her own terms.

Laura LAURA:
"Kull the Conqueror" is a goofy sword and fantasy epic from the same pulp writer (Robert E. Howard) who created "Conan the Barbarian." "Kull" has its kitschy charms, beginning with Kevin Sorbo, whose flat American delivery is every bit as out of place as Schwarzenegger's heavily accented dialogue in "Conan," but that's part of the fun! Sorbo looks the part and seems to have his tongue planted in his cheek - if only the script had featured more humor for him to work with. (In the film's funniest line, after Kull's informed that his wife is really a 3,000 year old witch, he protests "But she told me she was nineteen!"

Additional humor can be found in the casting of Harvey Fierstein as the duplicitous Juba, a seaside mercenary, who rolls his eyes and admonishes his old friend "Now Kull, you know I hate the smell of fish." Tia Carrere gets into her evil role with a gusto she's never exhibitted on film before. Kull's escape from her clutches to travel north to retrieve 'the breath of Valka,' the only weapon available to defeat Akivasha, is also a hoot - he's hidden on the underside of a particularly nasty camel who urinates all over his human cargo, providing lots of fodder for jokes aimed at the now pretty stinky Kull. We're also treated to a captured sea serpent right out of Toontown. And then there's the heavy metal score, which in itself provides a grin or two.

Other than these notes, "Kull" mostly goes through its B-movie paces, featuring some nice location photography in Eastern Europe paired with some pretty technologically retro matte shots. Special effects are pretty good for this type of film, especially when Akivasha, suspended in a whirlpool of fire, turns into a dragon.

"Kull the Conqueror" is a mindless way to while away and hour and a half on a Saturday afternoon.

C

Robin ROBIN:
"Kull The Conqueror," debuting TV action star Kevin Sorbo ("Hercules: The Legendary Journeys"), is a middling entry into the late summer movie entertainment bucket. At the end of a summer season that has to be one of the most boring, film-wise, in recent memory, "Kull..." is an entertaining ditty whose main problem is there is simply not enough humor written into its action script. This lack may hurt the overall acceptance the film will have as a viable money-maker for its distributors. Humor, when used well in an actioner, can propel such a film well above its peers - consider "Die Hard" without the "Yippee-ky-yay, motherfucker!" kind of lines.

Kevin Sorbo proves to be an extremely likable actor who exudes charisma in his role as the title character, Kull. Too bad the script does not allow Sorbo the opportunity to lend much of his charm, and obvious sense of humor, to his character. When he does get the occasional funny line - for instance, when told that his bride is a 3000 year old demon from hell, he responds, "She told me she was 19!" with a delivery that is dead on and funny, but the editing chops off the extra beat needed for the audience to get the joke - the comic timing is not allowed to play through. This makes the film more self-consciously serious than it should be.

Supporting cast all lend the proper Sword and Sorcery spirit to the undertaking. Tia Carrere, never a favorite of mine, does a solid job as the sorceress/demon Akavisha. She is suitably sexy and foreboding, playing well off of Sorbo.

Karina Lombard ("The Firm," "Wide Sargasso Sea"), obviously cast for her considerable sex appeal, lends just this quality to the movie, with her final relationship with Kull in no doubt. Lombard is not a great actress, but is darn attractive and sexy. She is an appealing love interest and heroine, playing well off of Sorbo's barbarian hero.

The rest of the cast are straight out of central casting - from a sequel to the "Conan" movies, maybe - filling the casting bill acceptably, with one special performance coming to mind: Harvey Fierstein, as the gender-challenged Juba, lends a campiness to his character that comes from the heart with such lines as, "But, Kull! You know I can't stand the smell of fish!"

Editing, of all the technical credits, is the most shoddy and notably less-than-good. The many sword fight scenes have continuity of movement problems that do not fit the time frame and physical movement of the fighters.

Another problem, possibly to do with editing, but also related to the script, is the feel that setups for some of the dramatic scenes have been cut out, like we're expected to know the motivations of the characters without any clues. Dialogue is stilted, relying on the actors to breath life into it - some do and others don't.

The closest comparison I can make to "Kull The Conqueror" is the far superior film from last year, "Dragonheart" with Dennis Quaid and Sean Connery. Yes, that film had the wonderful dragon effects and the voice of Connery. It also had a level of humor that is both fitting and entertaining. The writers would have done themselves well if they rented and watched "Dragonheart" before tackling the script for "Kull The Conqueror."

The electric rock score used through "Kull..." is oddly suited to the nature of the film and gives the fight scenes additional energy.

A good introduction for Kevin Sorbo to the big screen. He'll keep his TV fan's happy and opens himself to a whole new audience. If the producers did anything right with "Kull The Conqueror," it is casting Sorbo. Besides that, I give "Kull..." a C+.


THE FULL MONTY

Set in the heart of Britain, in the steel works town of Sheffield, "The Full Monty" is the rags-to-riches, so to speak, story of six unemployed blokes who put aside their plight and bare all as they work together to form a Chippendale-style group with a big difference - the full Monty.

Robin ROBIN:
"The Full Monty" stars Robert Carlyle (fondly remembered as the psychopathic Begbie in last year's hit, "Trainspotting") in a change of pace role as the slightly irresponsible, but ambitious, Gaz. Gaz is unemployed and divorced, with a son, Nathan (William Snape), who is the mature half of the father/son relationship.

Gaz and his mates are former steel workers layed off, a while back, from the world-renowned Sheffield steel works. The reality of manufacturing automation has changed the nature of steel work and has dumped large numbers of men into the unemployment ranks. The whole social fabric of Britain has shifted as women become the breadwinners and men are on the dole. 15 years ago, male strippers didn't even exist in England, now, there are Chippendale nights at the local clubs.

This idea, Gaz and his friends taking a shot at some "easy" money by performing a striptease at a neighborhood club, is fueled by the promise of this disparate gang of working class slobs to give their audience a one-time-only attraction - the full Monty, total frontal nudity.

Gaz is joined, in the nutty scheme, by an odd mixture of pals. There's overweight (and, lately, impotent) Dave (Mark Addy); ex-foreman and ballroom dancer Gerald (Tom Wilkinson); Horse (Paul Barber), an old geezer who can still do the bump, the bus stop, the stomp and the funky chicken; Lomper (Steve Huison), the sad loner; and, Guy (Hugo Speer), who has no rhythm, but is extremely well endowed. They are an ensemble of unemployed, working class stiffs of all shapes and sizes, who have the collective passion to reach their goal.

Director Peter Cattaneo and screenwriter Simon Beaufroy have assembled a talented and funny cast in a rags-to-riches kind of story reminiscent of such films as "The Commitments" and "The Bad News Bears." The assortment of mismatched personae is drawn together to a common goal - do something, anything, to break away from the doldrums of unemployment, insecurity, and loss of social stature, even if it means shedding their clothes and, maybe-maybe not, their dignity.

The cast of "The Full Monty" lend a working class sensibility to the proceedings with such a good-natured feeling, that you can't help but root for their success. The finale is worth the wait, with the boys dressed identically as security guards and taking it all off to the dulcet tones of Tom Jones covering the Randy Newman song, "You Can Leave Your Hat On." The fact that the cast actually performed their act, on camera, for the first time before a live audience, for this particular scene, gives a true sense of reality. The number is choreographed beautifully and, shot in one take, has a natural sassiness that rings true.

Simon Beaufroy's script also captures the socio-economic condition of northern England, with traditional roles completely reversed. Women have the disposable income and the men have to accept what they're given. He portrays the frustration of this emasculation in an honest manner.

Also nicely done is the relationship between Gaz and Nathan, his son. This is an emotional, rather than social, role reversal, with Nathan the anchor of the father-son relationship, giving Gaz very short shrift for his immaturity and rash behavior. The boy is a stabilizing influence on his dad.

The rest of the cast have their problems, too, from impotency to over-extended credit. They all have depth, especially over-weight Dave, whose sexual performance problems are neatly tied up by the finale, and dance-master Gerald, whose hard work gets him a coveted and well-deserved job just before the group's debut.

I have to admire the extremely good nature of the film. The performances, story, and social commentary are fresh, even if the Rocky-esque quality has been done before. There is a big difference between being derivative, like "Air Force One," and doing a type of film, like a rags-to-riches, failure-to-success story, that follows its own path. "A Full Monty" is a nice example of the latter.

An uplifting little film that works on its several levels. I give "The Full Monty" a B.

Laura LAURA:
"The Full Monty" is the charming story of six out of work men in Sheffield, England, a depressed area after the steel boom of the 60's. When Gaz (Robert Carlyle, "Trainspotting's" Begbie) realizes his best buddy's wife is in the audience of a local pub to see a touring Chippendale dancers show, he sends in his son Nathan in to retrieve her. When Nathan gets sidetracked emptying the remains of desertted beer glasses, Gaz sneaks in himself and is amazed at the full house these guys have attracted. In age old tradition, Gaz goes into 'let's put on a show!' mode.

The six men who team together couldn't be more different. Gaz needs money in order to keep partial custody of Nathan (the boy's more mature than his Dad and is constantly being embarrassed at Dad's hairbrained exploits). His best buddy Dave (Mark Addy) is overweight and impotent and being coaxed by his wife to take a demeaning job as a store security guard. Their ex-boss Gerald (Tom Wilkinson) is an older man who loss of job has ripped apart his pride - he's been unable to tell his wife that he hasn't worked in six months while she goes on shopping sprees and plans vacations he can't afford. Mark and Dave recruit Lomper (Steve Huison) after rescuing him from a suicide attempt. Guy (Hugo Speer) and Horse (Paul Barber) are discovered via an ad.

As the men work out their routine, they begin to advertise their show (as 'Hot Metal'). When two local women taunt their ability to deliver, Gaz throws down the gauntlet - unlike the Chippendales, they'll deliver the 'full monty' (British slang for totally nude).

Director Peter Cattaneo has produced a sweet, funny film about friendship and belief in oneself. At a run time of 95 minutes, the film could have been cut back even more, but once it gets on track, it's pace settles in. "The Full Monty" is a refreshing change from the norm and features one of the best ending shots I've seen this year!

B


EXCESS BAGGAGE

In the first of her $10 million 3-picture deal, Alicia Silverstone is Emily, the only child of an extremely wealthy businessman (Jack Thompson). Emily is one of those heiresses who's constantly getting into trouble to gain her father's attention. For her latest plot, she's worked out an elaborate fake kidnapping, demanding a $1 million dollar ransom before trussing herself up and locking herself in the trunk of her sleek teal BMW. What she didn't account for was Vincent (Benecio del Toro, "The Usual Suspects"), a professional car thief. He doesn't discover that the fully loaded car he's stolen (after the, to him, inexplicable police chase) has an extra, unique option until he's returned to the elaborate warehouse chop shop he and his partner Greg (Harry Connick Jr.) operate.

Laura LAURA:
"Excess Baggage" is an attempt to put a dark, modern spin on a 30's romantic screwball caper. The filmmakers don't quite pull it off, due to a script that's weak in its motivation factor and some odd casting that calls attention to itself more than it should.

Alicia Silverstone (looking much sleaker than the recent "Batman and Robin") is OK as the tough, chain-smoking, booze guzzling, black eyelinered Emily. Apparently she's trying to show her diversity, but while she's servicable, her character here won't charm audiences as she did in "Clueless." It was smart of her to insist on the lesser known, but talented Benecio del Toro as a costar. He's the most interesting character in the film, a somewhat taciturn, hangdog thief who recognizes he's got a barrelful of trouble the moment he makes eye contact with Emily. (In an amusing scene, as soon as Emily escapes from the trunk and is loose in the chop shop with Vincent, she constantly begs reassurances from him that he won't hurt her as she proceeds to kick the living daylights out of him.) Del Toro does have a propensity to mumble a lot, as his character in "The Usual Suspects" did, oftentimes making one strain to hear his dialogue. I hope he doesn't consider this one of hisacting techniques, as it doesn't work in this film, yet he shows so much promise on the screen.

The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well. The casting of an Australian to play Emily's Dad is odd, especially as his brother, Emily's Uncle Ray, is played by Christopher Walken. Walken's character, supposedly a former CIA assassin and his brother's business henchman, is underdefined. At first, he seems menacing - resentful of having to clean up the messes that Emily creates. Later on in the film, he becomes one of the good guys - huh? We never do get a clear idea of what the deal is between father and daughter is, either, which is the film's major weak point.

Inadvertent captor Vincent tries to disentangle himself from the midst of the kidnapping plot, only to become more and more mired as money he's supposed to return to the mob gets into the wrong hands and Emily is really kidnapped by Vincent's mob connections. Of course, in this type of story, Emily must continually insinuate herself into the hapless Vincent's plans until he realizes he's in love with her and we're left to watch the creaky plot twists play out (and nudged along by a recurring pop tune extolling Emily's charms).

"Excess Baggage" isn't awful, but it's not worth making a trip to the theater for.

C


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