'Mobsters': an entertaining period piece that's loaded with excess

July 26, 1991|By Philip Wuntch | Philip Wuntch,Dallas Morning News

One of the most admirable things about "The Godfather" was its understatement -- a raised eyebrow from Marlon Brando; a clever, almost imperceptible camera movement from Francis Ford Coppola.

No one connected with "Mobsters" seems to appreciate that fact. The quartet of young stars -- Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsey, Richard Grieco, Costas Mandylor -- as well as veterans Anthony Quinn, F. Murray Abraham and Michael Gambon -- avoid any semblance of subtlety. Director Michael Karbelnikoff and composer Michael Small seem downright allergic to anything softer than overstatement.

As a result, "Mobsters" is a hysterically overwrought period piece, compelling for its outlandish style. The direction and dialogue are ridiculously heavy-handed, but you won't be able to look away. There's something fascinating about excess.

The film purports to tell the story of four young legends in the making: sly, pantherlike Lucky Luciano (Slater); bookish, cautious Meyer Lansky (Dempsey); ladies' man Bugsy Siegel (Grieco); and Frank Costello (Mandylor), whom the script renders devoid of personality.

Young Luciano has old scores to settle. As a boy, he had watched helplessly as the gross, thoroughly corrupt Don Faranzano (Gambon, late of "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover") humiliated his father. Moreover, he had witnessed the rival leader, Don Masseria (Quinn), order the death of a child, who happened to be Don Masseria's nephew as well as Luciano's pal.

As he grows older, Luciano gathers his own gang and successfully plays one don against the other. The corpses pile up, and each death spectacularly tops the one that preceded it. With its razzmatazz camera angles and choreographed carnage, Mobsters" is a gangster flick an MTV-lover can adore.

Mr. Slater is in good form as the watchful Luciano, delivering his most mature performance yet. The other young actors simply grunt their lines and make appropriate facial expressions. Mr. Dempsey scowls. Mr. Grieco smirks. Mr. Mandylor broods.

Lara Flynn Boyle ("Twin Peaks") has little to do as the woman who humanizes the strictly business Luciano. Their big love scene is a series of cliched poses, accompanied by laughably pulsating background music. Christopher Penn, Sean's chubby sibling, is engaging as a relatively likable gofer who makes one too many mistakes.

F. Murray Abraham, whose performances usually seem engulfed self-admiration, is perfectly cast as a crooked financier who fixed the World Series. Like Jose Ferrer, he makes insufferable pomposity entertaining. Mr. Quinn goes deliciously over the top as the wildly theatrical Don Masseria, who uses a cloak of feigned sentimentality to cover his merciless heart. "I like to destroy people," he says in a moment of candor. "It makes me feel good."

"Mobsters" ranks as a "guilty pleasure." There's nothing original or unique about it. But Mr. Slater, Mr. Quinn and Mr. Abraham clearly are actors who like to be noticed. And their hamminess is worth savoring.

'Mobsters'

Starring Christian Slater, Anthony Quinn, F. Murray Abraham.

Directed by Michael Karbelnikoff.

Released by Universal Pictures.

Rated R.

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