All Sorts of 'Fellas

Gene Mustain is co-author of three true-crime books, including "Gotti: Rise & Fall," the inspiration for HBO's recent film "Gotti."

It was bound to happen because everything does in Hollywood. But it's here. A movie that portrays God as a gangster.

We're speaking metaphorically, of course. Hollywood souls with money they wish to keep aren't about to literally depict God taking a bat to some suspect servant's head or smashing a grapefruit into the face of some weepy wench. No, we mean Richard Dreyfuss in a camp idea, "Mad Dog Time," as imagined by Larry Bishop, a writer-actor making his directorial debut. Dreyfuss plays a boss of bosses, but he's really God--and dangerously lunatic to boot.

We will let Bishop explain: "I've always been fascinated by the expression, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' In some weird moment while driving around L.A., I personified it. What if 'grace' were God's girlfriend Grace and they got disconnected? Grace went one way, God another.

"Then I realized, take grace from God, God becomes pure power. And what personifies power more than a gangster? So the gangster world is the movie's setting. Dreyfuss has lost Diane Lane, who's Grace; he's God without grace. Pure power. The power thing is why people love gangster movies."

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There may be other reasons, but there's no question about the love, or at least fascination. Hollywood has known this virtually since there were movies--since, for instance, D.W. Griffith's gritty 1912 one-reeler "Musketeers of Pig Alley." It was about gangsters in the immigrant way station of New York's Lower East Side, which incubated some of Hollywood's favorite gangsters and actors--Lucky Luciano and Edward G. Robinson, among many.

Gangster stories contain all the big emotions--fear, love, hate, greed, jealousy, lust, hubris, betrayal, revenge. They come with a built-in rationale for conflict and violence. On occasion, as in "The Godfather, Part II," they rise to Shakespearean heights.

"Gangster films offer great moments," says Barbara Scharres, director of the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. "They show a world that, morally, is more black and white than the average person's. They're about great issues. Live or die. Hero or rat."

Like another home-grown genre, the western, the gangster story fills our need for mythic characters. But it has outlived the western because it can be as tragically contemporary as a drive-by shooting.

Still, it would go the way of the western if filmmakers didn't keep spinning it in fresh ways and opening it up to new audiences--and echoing the changes in gangs through the years to mark their continually evolving racial and ethnic makeups. With the gangster stories in this fall's crowded movie marketplace, and with others in the pipeline, filmmakers are starting to do both.

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"Mad Dog Time" is fresh--and wacky. God and Grace aside, it's really a gangster-movie sendup, but the big emotions remain in play. Even as it pokes fun, it plays on our hidden desire to use power as wickedly as bad guys do. Come on, admit it, haven't you fantasized about committing violence against the next jerk who cuts you off on the Ventura Freeway?

"Everyone has this will to feel more powerful," says Bishop, expounding on his power theme. "It's what connects us all. Even Mother Teresa feels more power with what she does than if she didn't do what she does. So right away, even with her, you have a linkup with Al Capone."

"Mad Dog Time" opens Friday, as does a vastly different gangster story, "The Funeral." It's about a 1930s family destroyed by a handed-down tradition of revenge. The film, directed by Abel Ferrara from a smart script by Nicholas St. John, introduces us to three racketeering brothers.

But the brothers are not what you expect racketeers to be. Introspective. Emotionally troubled. Closet communist. Except for an extraordinary tradition, they are ordinary men with ordinary doubts. The oldest, the introspective one, is played by Christopher Walken. He's most trapped by tradition--you might be too if your father ordered you to kill someone when you were 13.

"The film is about me and Nicky's grandfathers," says Ferrara, referring to St. John, a frequent collaborator. "We're both of Neapolitan descent. We watch these [gangster] movies, and they're about a world that doesn't exist. Well, it does and it doesn't. But ours is closer to what the real deal was. We wanted to give one from the inside."

"Mad Dog Time" and "The Funeral" arrive in the wake of another movie set in the gangster milieu, "Bound." This first feature directed by brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski flies in yet another direction. It's a caper movie, offbeat like "Mad Dog Time" but featuring a moll who falls for a butch plumber (talk about a fresh spin!) and plots to relieve a mob boss of $2 million. Jennifer Tilly is the moll, Gina Gershon the plumber.

Early next year, a more conventional gangster story, "Donnie Brasco," will arrive. But it has the virtue of real-life inspiration--an undercover FBI agent's five-year infiltration of a Mafia family. He almost became a "made man," a rank reserved for men the Mafia trusts most. Johnny Depp is the agent-mole, Al Pacino his unsuspecting mentor.

Around the same time, "Hoodlum" will land in theaters. Judging by the advance publicity, it appears familiar too, with a large exception: It is the first mainstream movie about a black godfather, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, the John Gotti of Harlem in the 1930s. Laurence Fishburne stars.

Farther down the road, expect another first--"Replacement Killer," the first gangster film from a major studio starring an Asian actor, in a Los Angeles story about a professional hit man who becomes the target after he backs out of a job. (He just can't kill a kid.)

"It's not really a gangster movie," says Terence Chang, manager of Chow Yun Fat, a big Hong Kong star about to go Hollywood in a big way with many projects besides "Killer" in development. "But it has gangster elements."

No matter. After "Killer," Chow and director John Woo, who directed Chow's big Hong Kong hits, might be reunited in "Burning Pit," a pure gangster film in the works at Fox 2000.

By putting blacks and Asians at the center of gangster films, Hollywood is catching up to what's happening on the streets. Black and Asian organized-crime groups are malevolent forces in several big cities besides Los Angeles and New York.

So are criminals of Latino, Russian and other origins. Yet, except for such films as "State of Grace" (about the Irish mob on New York's West Side) and "Little Odessa" (about a Russian hit man in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach), Hollywood has tended to like gangsters whose names end in vowels--gangsters out of the Mafia tradition, Italian Americans.

With the success of "Godfathers," "GoodFellas," "Mean Streets" and others, the tendency is easy to understand.

"In terms of appeal, Italian Americans dominate because they look and sound like most of the movie audience," says Ed McDonald, a former top federal prosecutor in New York who spent his government career chasing mainly Italian American gangsters and who played himself in "GoodFellas."

"Other ethnic criminals, they don't look or speak like us. The average moviegoer wants someone he can relate to. He wants to feel like he could be in the same situation as the actors."

Film history produces many exceptions to any rule. Bishop, who wrote and starred in "Underworld" before receiving his graceless God vision, points to Hollywood's long fascination with Jewish gangsters--on up to 1991's "Bugsy," which was actually about Hollywood's fascination with the man credited with visualizing Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel. Coincidentally, in "Mad Dog Time," Bishop, the son of comedian Joey Bishop, assembles main characters whose origins, except for Gregory Hines', are not evident. They could be Jewish, Italian or Irish. This complements the movie, which mixes styles from different eras to create an elusive world.

"The reality is every group has gangsters," Bishop says. "I wouldn't look too deeply into why Italians are mainstays. It's probably because some movies are successful. But Hollywood will always gravitate toward what's successful."

Success, particularly Laurence Fishburne's at the box office, no doubt drove "Hoodlum"--the first big movie about a real-life black godfather--out of the originating minds of co-producer Paul Eckstein and screenwriter Chris Brancato and into the hearts of bottom-line bosses at United Artists.

"When Laurence committed, that made the project a go," says "Hoodlum" director Bill Duke, who also is a writer-actor.

To Duke, "Hoodlum" represents a breakthrough--colorblind gangsterism: "Blacks have been thought of as rebels or as people who merely come up against the law. We have not fallen into the main American tradition of bad guys. But in truth, there is a bit of outlaw in all people."

With two more Academy Award nominees, Tim Roth and Andy Garcia, also in the film in big roles, "Hoodlum" doesn't look like much of a risk. Still, the story of Harlem's Bumpy Johnson--as big in his world as Al Capone and Dutch Schultz--has been around for 60 years without being told in a big way. Capone and Schultz, on the other hand, have been mythologized in many films.

In "Hoodlum," Fishburne as Johnson locks pistols with Roth as Schultz for control of Harlem's numbers rackets. Bumpy prevails but is left spiritually dead because he loses his loved ones. In the movies, gangsters usually lose their lives or freedom, if not their spirits. If it were any other way, we might have anarchy in the streets.

"It's the same thing as Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather, Part II,' " Duke says, "when Pacino's sitting there at the end of the movie in his garden, alone. He's got all this power--but at what price?"

Film historians say "Hoodlum" and "Replacement Killer" are the inevitable leading edge of a trend toward multiculturalism in the top roles of gangster films.

"The people who'll move into the top studio jobs will come from a multicultural world and will appreciate it and understand it more than the current heads," says Robert Sklar, professor of cinema at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

On a small scale, it's already happening. Terence Chang says that Teddy Zee, a Chinese American executive at Columbia, was one of the driving forces behind the nearly complete deal to get "Killer" to the screen. Given the international clout of the film's reluctant assassin, Chow Yun Fat, "Killer" also doesn't look like much of risk. But it might pave the way for other movies about, say, Benny Ong, the late, longtime godfather of New York's Chinatown.

"I've been in pitch meetings where someone brings up the Italian Mafia," Chang says, "and the studio people will say they're tired of that, they want something new."

Ah, something new. Something fresh. Something spun. Something, perhaps, like a gangster God searching for his lost Grace.

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