NEW YORK -- 'The Cotton Club,' the $47 million movie that is being released Friday for the holiday season, is an attempt to revive the old fashioned gangster film set to some of the best popular music written in the 1920s and 1930s.
If you like hoodlum films with plenty of treachery and gore, you'll enjoy Orion Pictures' two-hour venture into Harlem in its days of speakeasy glory. If you don't like hoods, the music and dancing isn't enough of a substitute to make this a satisfying film and it may seem more distended than it really is.
The Cotton Club was a gangster-owned Harlem club catering to a white only clientele with black entertainers who couldn't even use the front entrance. In the film it is a setting for warring Irish and Jewish mobsters who take over Harlem's rackets from the blacks just in time for the Italian Mafia to move in.
The film, produced over a period of several hectic years marked by changes in the book and directorial personnel, shows the wear and tear of rewriting, changes in the point of view and extensive editing. Its director is Francis Coppola of 'The Godfather' fame but 'The Cotton Club' lacks the magic of Coppola's acknowledged masterpiece.
Most disturbing are loose ends, unexplained plot developments, and a certain lack of focus that must be blamed on Coppola who also had a hand with William Kennedy and 'Godfather' novelist Mario Puzo in writing the story. Puzo, however, is given no credit for the screenplay.
Richard Gere dominates the film with a nice mixture of oiliness and innocence as Dixie Dwyer, a cornet player and pianist who becomes a gofer for mobster Dutch Schultz, the lover of Schultz's girlfriend and finally the star of gangster movies in Hollywood.
It is not an easy role, but Gere is convincing as a hustler who remains uncorrupted. To emphasize his basic humanity, he is given a younger brother who takes to crime like a piranha, kills a couple of kids in a senseless rubout and is himself executed in a bloody phonebooth ambush.
Diane Lane plays the sultry blonde singer, Vera Cicero, shared by Dutch and Dixie, in what may pass in Hollywood for subtlety but is actually cliche. She is so cool at times that you wonder what really could stir her passion, if not Gere.
Lonette McKee plays the Lena Horne-like role of Lila Rose Oliver a little on the heavy side but she is a wonderful singer, which makes her attempt to pass as white in order to get to Broadway seem even more pathetic.
Gregory Hines is cast as her impetuous lover, Sandman Williams. He is an original, often exciting actor but he does his best work tapping with his brother, Maurice Hines. The Hineses are an unbeatable dance duo who get a brilliant assist from veteran tap man Charles 'Honi' Coles.
James Remar is an unforgettable Schultz, his face a twisted psychotic mask that mirrors his insecurity and terror. As his brother in crime, Bob Hoskins makes Owney Madden seem almost likable because he wants so much to be liked. Fred Gwynne is oustanding as the hard-to-ruffle enforcer, French Demange, Julian Beck endows the role of another Schultz lieutenant with dour brilliance, and Allen Garfield is superb as the funny Abbadabba Berman.
In smaller roles, Gwen Verdon plays Dixie's mother amiably, Nicolas Gage is believably amoral as his brother, and John Ryan gives a powerful portrayal as a mobster knifed to death so violently by Schultz at a black tie party that his blood sprays a crystal chandelier and drips on Vera's pretty face.
The rest of the large cast, of which Larry Marshall as a singing Cab Calloway is outstanding, fleshes out the guys and dolls atmosphere of the Cotton Club, which looks like a real club setting rather than the usual film exaggeration.
Much of the photography, directed by Stephen Goldblatt, is atmospheric and at times unnecessarily dark. On the whole, the production is stronger than the turgid story line which has an incredibly inappropriate comic ending at Grand Central Terminal.