Directed By: Michael Karbelnikoff
Screenplay By: Michael Mahern, Nicholas Kazan
Story By: Michael Mahern
Produced By: Steve Roth
Cast: Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsey, Richard Grieco, Costas Mandylor, Michael Gambon, Anthony Quinn
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 104 minutes
Review Date: February 4, 2011
Mobsters is many things: a story of four gangsters who grow up together on the streets of New York, a beginner’s primer to the world of organized crime, a highly dramatized history lesson about the formation of the Commission. It’s also many different movies, all rolled into one — a collage of mob clichés, as if the filmmakers slid a tray down a cafeteria lunch line and picked scenes out, a la carte, from other films.
This film opens on the mean streets of Brooklyn, 1917. Charlie “Lucky” Luciano (Christian Slater) — though he has yet to grow into that nickname — is an angst-ridden, frustrated youth whose father is terrorized by mob boss Don Faranzano (Michael Gambon). A friend of his is later killed in the street by a rival boss, Joe Masseria (Anthony Quinn), while the masses look on as if from the stands. Lucky quickly learns to despise that kind of power, and lays awake at night dreaming of the day when he will have his turn.
The story of four gangsters who grow up together on the streets of New York takes place in the span of a single cut. We flash ahead fourteen years to Lucky’s half-Italian, half-Jewish crew, all grown up, strolling down the same streets in the height of fashion. We get the impression they’re kind-of-sort-of a big deal — but not big enough, as Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey) elucidates with an analogy derived from a half-full glass of whiskey. Bootlegging is the name of the game, but aside from a flashy, cutaway montage of them standing side-by-side, firing their Tommy guns in unison at the camera, we never find out exactly what that entails; what goes on behind-the-scenes. Their dabblings in general mobster mayhem and looking good in suits plays out against the backdrop of a coming war between two big mob families — yes, that’s right, the equally vile Faranzano and Masseria clans.
By smooth-talking and building up a reputation, Lucky is able to negotiate his gang into a unique partnership with both of these two crime lords of the old guard. From this point on, the story plays out like Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, with Lucky’s outfit pitting both factions against each other — but Mobsters is less thrilling, and less intelligent than either of those films. Lucky will fall into bed with Masseria, whose monicker “fat pig” is well-deserved (and contributes to the film’s best — and possibly only original scene), only to sell him out to Faranzano, before double-crossing Faranzano. In the end, it’s nothing more than a giant “who’s gonna whack who” clusterfuck. For a subplot, Lucky enters into a “friends with benefits” relationship with sultry Mara Motes (Lara Flynn Boyle), that never really goes anywhere significant.
The script is at times painfully simple and at others, far too ambiguous. The sparse exposition in the first act misses out on opportunities to endear us to this band of brothers — and those few, deliberate attempts that do crop up hit just a trifle too hard. I could always tell whenever I was meant to feel a certain way; the film’s “charm” was lost on me. I never participated on an emotional level, never bought into the reality. I was always aware I was watching a movie. In the second half, there’s some interesting dramatic tension between Lucky and Lansky, but their characters’ relationships aren’t developed nearly enough in the first act to reel you in.
Mobsters is derivative of a lot of things, but handles none of them well. It tries hard to be The Untouchables, but doesn’t feature a single compelling character, much less performance, to serve as an anchor. It tries to capture, but ultimately lacks the dark wit and slick pacing of a Scorcese film. It’s a lot like Once Upon a Time in America but without the passage of time or deep thematic reservoir; itself lighter, choppier, and streamlined. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a highly condensed version of Boardwalk Empire in this regard. The production is lavish, but pales in comparison to Dick Tracy. Lush set pieces are wasted on the trite and formulaic story.
If any of the films I’ve listed here are name-brand items, this is the generic label. We’re talking “Irish Treasures” or “Choco Spheres” on a shelf next to “Lucky Charms” or “Cocoa Puffs.” Strictly speaking, it’s a poor man’s Coppola.
If you can suspend these criticisms, the film itself is an enjoyable ride, just one you’ve probably taken before. There are some amusing bits, such as the wild card contract killer “Mad Dog” Coll (Nicholas Sadler) — but when the filmmakers aren’t recreating scenes from other movies, it’s clear they’re drawing their inspiration from the pages of an encyclopedia.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.