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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Men of Respect’ Blindsided by Its Mob-Shakespeare Mix

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Men of Respect” (AMC Century 14)--in which a mad Mafia triggerman starts a murderous climb to power--seems an attempt to crossbreed the literary themes and plots of Shakespeare with the cinematic forms of Coppola’s “Godfather” series, part of what Coppola himself was trying to do in “The Godfather Part III.” If that’s so, it suggests that such attempts work in inverse proportion to their self-consciousness. Talent abounds in “Men of Respect,” but it seems misdirected, defused, wasted.

Here, writer-director William Reilly retells “Macbeth” in exactly the sort of background Coppola created for “Godfather I and II”: the discreet, glowering, quietly menacing world of top-ranking Mafiosi caught in a maze of betrayal, their souls and faces swallowed in darkness.

It’s an ambitious film, sometimes quite well-acted--especially by Dennis Farina as the Banquo surrogate, “Bankie Como"--and interestingly shot, in a scraped, dingy palette of dark colors by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. Writer-director William Reilly has talent: His language has vitality and he gets a little of that tight-lipped, dangerous elegance Coppola infused into his upper-ranking Mafiosi--the stylized profanity, the bemused cynicism, the masks of deportment.

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As the Macbeth surrogate, Mikey Battaglia, John Turturro seizes the screen with his usual full-bore intensity, and Katherine Borowitz is an appropriately sleek and hard-shell Lady Macbeth, a.k.a. Ruthie Battaglia. There are bits of the other performances--Lilia Skala’s Weird Sister, Rod Steiger’s Duncan/D’Amico, Peter Boyle’s Macduff/Duffy--that seem just on the verge of igniting. If you walked in on any individual scene of “Men of Respect” and watched five minutes, you might think it an accomplished or promising film. In a way, you’d be right; it works in small pieces.

But this movie has been really blindsided by its own premise. A Mafia “Macbeth” probably couldn’t work well, unless it went stylish and crazy enough to make us temporarily forget the source. This isn’t the first time “Macbeth” has been set in a gangland milieu: Writer Phillip Yordan’s gangland update “Joe Macbeth,” with Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman, was filmed in 1955 by Ken Hughes. But there’s a fatal flaw in the notion: Shakespeare’s play is about the dark usurpation of proper authority; in this mobster milieu, nothing is legitimate.

The entire conceit falls apart early on, almost as soon, in fact, as the film really gets into the machinery of “Macbeth’s” plot. When Steiger’s Duncan/D’Amico shows up at the Battaglia digs and the thunder starts crashing, Mikey Battaglia pulls in his lip and pulls out his knife, and Lady Ruthie begins to flip out; it’s the first of many moments where “Men of Respect’s” shadow-drenched pastiche begins to veer head on into the deadpan, uncontrollably comic.

In Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s 1983 “Scarface"--an update of the 1932 Hawks-Hecht gangster classic--a lot of ingenuity seemed to be wasted simply in updating scenes from the old movie. There, as here, writer and director might better have used the old story as a springboard, gone in new directions, invented freely outside the original plot as Kurosawa did with “Macbeth” in “Throne of Blood” or “King Lear” in “Ran"--or even as Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim did with “Romeo and Juliet” in “West Side Story.”

Paradoxically, it’s the fidelity of “Men of Respect” (rated R for language, sex, violence) to “Macbeth’s” plot that finally makes it somewhat sterile, uninvolving and definitely predictable. Macbeth/Mikey Battaglia’s fate begins to seem not psychological or even cosmic, but simply literary. Not a victim of blood, witchery, madness or the convulsions of history, he simply had the misfortune to stumble into the wrong rewrite.

‘Men of Respect’

John Turturro: Mike Battaglia

Katherine Borowitz: Ruthie Battaglia

Dennis Farina: Bankie Como

Peter Boyle: Duffy

A Central City Films/Arthur Goldblatt Productions presentation released by Columbia Pictures. Director-screenplay William Reilly. Producer Ephraim Horowitz. Executive producers Arthur Goldblatt, Eric Kitain. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. Editor Elizabeth Kling. Costumes Susan Lyall. Music Misha Segal. Production design William Barclay. Art director Caty Maxey. Sound Wendy Hedin. With Rod Steiger, Lilia Skala, Steven Wright, Stanley Tucci. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (Language, sex, violence).


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