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set in harlem during the great depression , rival gangster " families " go to war over control of " the numbers " , an illegal gambling lottery .
" runners " take bets from potential lottery winners and deliver them to private locations for drawings .
the undisputed leader of the harlem numbers is the madame queen ( cicely tyson ) who is challenged by dutch schulz ( tim roth ) , a ruthless hoodlum .
by turning against the queen , dutch defies his partner , the infamous lucky luciano ( andy garcia ) , who wishes to respect the queen and keep the peace .
the queens' army strengthens when an acquaintance , ellsworth " bumpy " johnson ( lawrence fishburne ) is released from prison and becomes a bodyguard for her .
he proves himself worthy in short time as he thwarts an assassination attempt ( on himself and the queen ) , and later takes control of the queens army when she is jailed for tax evasion .
bumpy's reign is not as restrained and subdued as the queen and he declares all out war on dutch .
bloody gang warfare ensues .
bumpy faces many obstacles during his reign .
his new army questions his methods .
his girlfriend ( vanessa l . williams ) and the queen disagree with his violent solutions .
most importantly ( in his eyes ) , dutch has become a more formidable foe than he imagined , and seeks help from lucky luciano to assassinate him .
there have been so many movies dealing with organized crime that it must be hard to write an original story dealing with it .
this movie is not original at all .
in fact , i was angered by how many similarities there was between this film and , arguably , the best gangster movie of all time , the godfather .
if you are going to borrow ideas from another movie and not give credit , why not borrow from a lesser known movie ( say , millers crossing ? ) .
how could the credited screenwriter chris brancato not give credit to mario puzo himself ?
here are just some of the major similarities ( i stopped counting at 10 ) .
crooked cop assaults blood relative of the leader .
gang extracts revenge on crooked cop .
wife ( or girlfriend ) questions her partners' murderous activities and leaves him .
high ranking " officer " betrays the leader .
blood relative of the leader murdered .
war erupting between the " families " .
high-ranking officer disapproves of the leader in front of other family members .
new leader runs family differently from previous leader .
large meeting with all families involved .
the setup in this movie is done rather well .
i enjoyed the portrayal of the network of " runners " sprinting through the streets collecting bets for the queens lottery .
this was the way of life in harlem , and most people involved with the queen did so because it was the only way to support their families and put food on the table .
number running was the only way for the harlem population to find work .
i also enjoyed the interaction between the angry , violent dutch and the calm , patient lucky .
after about the 30-40 minute mark all of the similarities with the godfather start appearing , one after the other ( and in short order ) .
it was a huge distraction , and an insult to my intelligence .
who was the screenwriter kidding here ?
some of the individual performances were well done .
andy garcia was very convincing as lucky , unfortunately his screen time is reduced to a supporting role .
tim roth effectively plays the cocky villain , much like his roles in " the cook , the thief , his wife and her lover " and " rob roy " .
the good performances and convincing setup during the first third of the movie do not make up for the lackluster story that follows .
a couple of coincidences is one thing , over a dozen is an insult .
directed by bill duke
ellsworth bumpy johnson . . . . . . . lawrence
fishburne dutch schultz . . . . . . . . . . . . tim
roth lucky luciano . . . . . . . . . . andy
garcia the queen . . . . . . . . . . . . . cicely tyson francine hughes . . . . . . . . . . vanessa
l . williams illinois gordon . . . . . . . . . . chi
mcbride
written by randy turgeon , january 22 , 1998
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