In recent past the author of this review has seen many murderers, bandits and war criminals being celebrated as folk heroes. That celebration of crime as some kind of heroic activity isn't something only this part of the world should be ashamed of. American history also saw plenty of questionable characters being turned into larger-than-life mythical figures. Hollywood played large part in it and almost entire history of organised crime in 20th Century USA could be found in relatively small number of films and TV shows made in past few decades. One of the most important characters in those stories, however, had to wait for the end of millennium before becoming main protagonist of a film. That film was Lansky, directed for HBO in 1999 by John McNaughton.
Protagonist of the film is Meyer Lansky, one of the most powerful and most influential figures of American organised crime in 20th Century. The film begins in late 1970s Israel where Lansky (played by Richard Dreyfuss) desperately tries to become a citizen. Decision is in at the hands of Israeli Supreme Court and Lansky kills time by remembering the most important events of his past. In early 1900s he lived in Russia and witnessed anti-Semitic pogroms that forced his parents to seek sanctuary in America. Streets of Lansky's new country weren't paved with gold and poverty forced the boy to befriend Ben "Bugsy" Siegel and other young delinquents from New York streets. Those young men gradually begin to break unwritten rules about ethnically pure criminal organisation and make alliance with Lucky Luciano and Italian American gangsters. After a while this alliance starts to dominate New York underworld while Lansky, Siegel and Luciano become close personal friends. But in 1940s this friendship is going to be tested by Siegel's megalomaniacal plan to turn Las Vegas into major gambling resort.
Considering the talents involved - Dreyfuss in the main role and David Mamet as screenwriter - and HBO's reputation to turn true stories into critically acclaimed television films, Lansky is a terrible disappointment. Almost everyone involved in this project gave impression of not trying hard enough. Mamet's script is confusing, full of unnecessary episodes, subplots and characters. McNaughton's direction is wooden and turns this extraordinary story of epic proportions into something banal. Acting is also disappointing, especially in the case of Anthony La Paglia (who plays old Luciano) and Eric Roberts (who plays old Siegel). Younger actors that play the protagonists in their earlier years also don't look much like their old colleagues; there is little resemblance between Max Perlich (who plays young Lansky) with Dreyfuss. The movie could have been better if Perlich played Lansky in his latter years. But the worst thing is deja vu feeling for most of the viewers -Lansky covers events, characters and situations that were explored more comprehensively and more successfully in other films. And even those who aren't that familiar with American mob history are likely to be bored with this film.
RATING: 2/10 (-)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on July 27th 2004)
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