Wednesday, December 4, 2013

'MOB CITY' REVIEW: IS IT REALLY NOIR?

LEADING MAN? John Bernthal in 'Mob City'

I've made mention of it here before... It seems that every TV network wants a piece of that retro pie. This time, TNT is throwing its hat into the ring with their ambitious three-week event 'Mob City' that's scheduled to air Dec. 4. Based on the John Buntin non-fiction book 'L.A. Noir,' the six-episode drama depicts the Los Angeles department's secret unit of cops and the brutal (and famous) gangsters of the post-war/pre-rock and roll era. I've managed to snag a screener of the first episode and I've come to a few conclusions and raise some appropriate questions.

THE LEADING MAN

Jon Hamm. Steve Buscemi. Jeffrey Dean Morgan. As the anti-heros (and respective leads) of their own vintage cable dramas, these thesps effortlessly carry their show. They're the soul and even though STARZ cancelled 'Magic City,' Morgan was certainly the glue that held that ill-fated show together(one can easily imagine him fitting in perfectly here).

Executive producer Frank Darabont (who met his leading man while he was the showrunner on 'The Walking Dead') has mentioned that veteran TV actor Jon Bernthal harkens back to the rugged leading men of film noir. When I read that, the record scratched off in my head. Physically, sure, Bernthal may ideal in a scrappy kind of way but I can't see him charismatically carrying this show as former WWII marine Joe Teague, now a grizzled LAPD detective. He's the second banana and a damned good one at that. He's not the guy I think of when I look for the poster child for my show. Even more odd (stay with me) is that when I found out he rubbed his head on 'The Walking Dead' what seemed like every episode nervously, I really made up my mind. Unfair? Maybe. Was it a character trait or weird acting tick? Click here to make up your mind. Either way, he's not the Russell Crowe Darabont may think he is.

IS HE BUGSY? Can Ed Burns pull it off?

THE BUGSY FACTOR

I don't want to get hung up on casting again but Edward Burns as famed gangster Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel? Really? I'll be honest... Bugsy is a hard role to cast because not only was he movie star handsome, he was a vicious killer. On the big screen, Warren Beatty as the Las Vegas visionary was also a head-scratcher and Richard Grieco in 'Mobsters' was downright laughable. You can't just cast a haircut... There needs to be menace.

In his defense, Burns didn't show up in the pilot so I can't say whether he's any good but I'm hoping he'll surprise me. Up to now, he's always been an actor-director stuck in his mid-90s groove of New York bars and witty banter. Fun fact: Thomas Jane (who starred in Darabont's 'The Mist') was originally supposed to portray Siegel. We even see him in character via photographs during episode 1. When the show got picked up, Jane had another acting commitment so the gig went to Burns.

As an aside, as far as Bugsy portrayals are concerned, late actor Ray Sharkey delivered a bravura performance as a character based on the gangster in the 1989 Showtime miniseries 'The Neon Empire,' written by novelist and legendary journalist Pete Hammill. If you can find it on VHS, snag yourself a copy.

FAMILIAR TURF

We've been down this road before and the results have proven woefully uneven. Last year's "Gangster Squad" was pretty much two hours of Sean Penn chewing up chunks of scenery; Josh Brolin squinting and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone playing dress up for the school play 'Guys and Dolls.'


This particular era of Los Angeles and its underbelly is difficult to recreate - especially with CGI. The aesthetic needs to be real or else it all just begins to look like a video game. Wanna see it done right? Look no further than 1997's "L.A. Confidential." Does 'Mob City' nail it? I'd say they're on the right track.

WHERE'S THE FEMME FATALE?

A noir is only as good as it's lady and we barely catch a glimpse of actress Alexa Davalos in the pilot. Here's hoping we see much more of her because after all, without a lethal dame, who gives a rat's patooty about gangsters, right?

SO WHAT'S GOING FOR IT

The pedigree of Darabont is hard to overlook and it's obvious he assembled a top notch supporting cast that includes Neal McDonough, Hal Morrison, Milo Ventimiglia and Jeremy Luke.

There isn't a more seductive era than vintage Los Angeles and if Darabont can infuse its landscape into the show ala Michael Mann and 'Miami Vice,' he can't lose.

In the pilot, Simon Pegg is a standout as a low-rent club comic Hecky Nash who has a bone to pick with the mob. Who knew the guy had dramatic chops?

BUT IS IT NOIR?

What's my verdict? 'Mob City' tries reallly hard. Sure, it has moody narration, a flawed, hard-boiled hero and enough shadows to make you squint. But is it bonafide noir? As far as the pilot is concerned, let's just say that 'Mob City' is the Domino's pizza franchise that just opened smack dab in the middle of Florence, Italy. The ingredients are there, sure... But sometimes you just want a gritty, old-school pie.

1 comments from fellow 'Basement' dwellers:

Monson said...

No, I don't think so. It is a period piece crime show. Noir isn't 40s urban fashion and lots of shadows, it's in the dark story and in what kind of (doomed) person the hero is. Right?

And, after Ellroy's books and LA Confidential, and the Gangster Squad movie, I'm not really interested in that material again. But, all give it a try.

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