MOVIE REVIEWS : Armed, Hardly Dangerous : Young Hunks as Young Hoods in 'Mobsters'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Mobsters" looks like it was made by people who have seen too many gangster films for people who haven't seen any. There isn't a breath of life in the filmmaking; the production is so slick and shiny that you can practically see your reflection coming off the screen. Given the number of bodies that get bloodied, pummeled, slashed and riddled, this antiseptic, at-a-remove quality is more than a bit eerie. It's like witnessing a slugfest between hermetically sealed Munchkins.

The chief Munchkins are Charlie (Lucky) Luciano (Christian Slater), Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Bugsy Siegel (Richard Grieco) and Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor). A lot of publicity has been generated over this young-hunk casting: The actors are supposed to be closer to the age of the real gangsters than the old-fogy incarnations of Bogart, Cagney, et al.

But age is not simply a matter of years; it's likely that Luciano, Lansky, Siegel and Costello were a great deal more seasoned in their 20s than most adults twice their age. What's missing from the characterizations in "Mobsters" (countywide) is any sense of how ambition and rage and poverty and wealth and psychopathology can contort youthfulness. These kid hoods don't have the young/old scariness that their actual counterparts must have had.

The characters have no inner life, so they seem to be even younger than they're supposed to be: They're like pipsqueak impersonators dressing up in their fathers' natty duds. For a comparison you have to go back to Alan Parker's "Bugsy Malone," with baby-faced pre-teens acting out a Prohibition melodrama.

Of course, there's a reason for this stunt-like casting. It's an attempt to create a brand-new audience for an old-time genre, in the same way that the two "Young Guns" Westerns tried to coalesce sagebrush and puberty. And, as in the "Young Guns" films, the cast can't support the high-concept; everybody seems to be play acting. Geoff Murphy's direction of "Young Guns 2," however, was amazingly alive, and that kept the film watchable. Michael Karbelnikoff, who made "Mobsters," (rated R for strong violence and language) is a TV-commercial veteran who barely knows how to put across his wares. He's real big on emblematic shots of spreading blood stains, and he has a fondness for love montage scenes so heavily filtered they seem deodorized. Actually, the whole production seems deodorized.

We're all used to movies in which gangsters are glorified or sentimentalized. Even the two greatest films in the genre, Coppola's first two "Godfather" movies, bore a few such stretch marks.

But "Mobsters," which was written by Michael Mahern and Nicholas Kazan, seems to be reaching for a new cliche: Set in the years 1917 through 1931, it's about how these four mobsters, three Italians and a Jew, stuck together through thick and thin and, get this, broke down ethnic barriers in gangsterville. Sure, these guys put a lot of large holes in people but, don't you see, they were actually human rights activists .

If you're not keyed into the youth-hunk circuit, the presence of such well-appointed older actors as Michael Gambon, Anthony Quinn and F. Murray Abraham may be enough to lure you into the theater, but don't be fooled. This is not their finest hour. As Arnold Rothstein, the gangster who fixed the 1919 World Series, Abraham natters on about Metternich and gets plugged during a card game. Anthony Quinn gets his while chomping a mouthful of manicotti. (Karbelnikoff cuts from Quinn's sauce-spattered mug to a huge side-view of a pig's head on a serving tray. Quinn should sue). Gambon, best known for TV's "The Singing Detective," looks fearsome and sounds like Placido Domingo imitating Bela Lugosi.

The only actor who gives the film a boost is Nicholas Sadler. As Mad Dog Coll, Sadler has a high old time biting tongues and noses. Sliced by his enemies, he stares at the mess and says, "All this blood and I don't feel a thing." He could be speaking for the audience.

'Mobsters'

Christian Slater: Lucky Luciano

Costas Mandylor: Frank Costello

Richard Grieco: Bugsy Siegel

Patrick Dempsey: Meyer Lansky

A Universal Pictures presentation of a Steve Roth production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Michael Karbelnikoff. Producer Steve Roth. Executive producer C.O. Erickson. Screenplay Michael Mahern and Nicholas Kazan. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editors Scott Smith and Joe D'Augustine. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Michael Small. Production design Richard Sylbert. Art director Peter Lansdown Smith. Set decorator George R. Nelson. 1 hour, 44 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for strong violence and language).

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