Sunday, December 29, 2013
It's news to no one, that zombies are popular right now and Darabont brought the Walking Dead to life at a perfect time to tap TV watchers' fascination. Since then the vision has changed hands many times, and from all appearances it'll just keep going until there's a spin off for every living character. It's all in the premise, it's set to go on and on until everyone is sick of it, and then probably another couple years. Darabont may well count himself lucky one day, that he got to exit before we've all had way too much of it. As far as I'm concerned, if Darabont had something to prove, he did it very well both times, bringing the Walking Dead to life, and now with Mob City.
"Mob City" is a closed story, caught at a very specific point in the past, 1940's L.A., in the days of Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, a hopelessly corrupt police force and Chief William Parker's attempts to clean things up. Once Siegel, Cohen and Parker are gone, so is the story. I think this kind of story can bring out the best in a director and it does here, giving a framework, and certain character sketches, but also enough room for invention within. The invented characters like Joe Teague and Sid Rothman give an easy access point to the story. While they may not be exactly true to facts, they're certainly based on guys who would have been around. The fact that they haven't been written about however, gives them the freedom to do anything including complicate their lives, as long as they don't alter the facts we know.
And, there are plenty of stories inside that time frame. Darabont chooses the viewpoint of bit player, Detective Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal) a guy involved in the battle between Chief Parker (Neal McDonogh) and Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) only because Siegel is the Department's main business. Teague is mostly a good cop who came back from the war as damaged goods. He served with Bugsy's current fixer Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia) who he still talks to now and then, which turns out to be both a good and bad thing, when he agrees to take a side job as intimidation for a lousy comedian who has an idea to make some money from Bugsy. If you've ever seen a noir story in your life, you'll know that this simple idea goes off the rails pretty quick, which leaves us with the interesting parts, the "how," "why," and "then what?"
We've seen most of these characters before, but not exactly like this. They're based on stock cop/ gangster characters but they take on their own dimensions. Teague, by strict definition could be seen as a dirty cop, and we're shown that being a dirty cop at this point in time is the norm. But in "Mob City" the reasons matter. Teague is a dirty cop that will do Siegel a favor if it serves his own interest, but he won't pretend he did it for Siegel. He won't take a pay off for doing so, regardless of the consequence. Bernthal gets the character just right, and his Teague is a worthy addition to the L.A. lore. He gets the stoic loner who doesn't play well with others down perfectly, a wild card, but more competent and informed than you might think.
Period gangster pieces always struggle to find a huge audience. Consider the fact that L.A. Confidential, the contemporary masterpiece of L.A. period gangster films didn't even make back twice its budget. 1991's "Bugsy" ended up in the same boat. "Gangster Squad," the most recent all star attempt still hasn't made its budget back. There's a devoted audience for these stories, but they're clearly not for everyone. Perhaps that's as it should be, the important thing is that they succeed in satisfying the audience they're made for, and Darabont does that incredibly well, giving us an authentic looking update of the noir story, which, in 1940's L.A. is a shadow cast from a bright orange shape. This is Hollywood Noir, make no mistake, and it looks fantastic to showcase the rot underneath. Inspired by John Buntin's "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City" it informs itself with the facts as a framework and then asks if we really know the whole story.
Simon Pegg not a TV regular, does a surprising turn here as Hecky Nash, a desperate comic who gets events rolling by making a bad choice. As loathsome as Nash is, Pegg makes him distinctive, and we don't wonder why Bugsy Siegel stopped hanging around with him when they grew up. I was surprised at how good Edward Burns was as Bugsy Siegel, as it's not a role I would ever expect from him. The unexpectedness makes him stand out, but in a way that only helps the character, he comes across as a complete wild card too, too hotheaded to know or care that he's in trouble.
Milo Ventmiglia's Ned Stax helps us ease into this world as the welcoming face of the organization, always calm and collected, but he can't help it if you don't listen to him. He reinforces the focus on the smaller players as being pivotal to events. His ties with Joe Teague, and his understanding of Teague's motives place him in a precarious position. It's obvious there is a real loyalty and friendship between the two, but much like Bugsy, Teague is not into advice, giving Stax the real rock and a hard place predicament.
Robert Knepper plays Sid Rothman, Cohen's muscle and the most direct foil to Joe Teague. He's very clearly a sociopath that loves the whole cops and robbers game. Rather than mindless thug, he always makes the smart play. He'll kill you without hesitation, but not if it doesn't serve his interests. If it makes more sense, he'll just kill you later. Alexa Davalos plays Jasmine Fontaine, the complicated and mysterious love interest that can't help but cause trouble for everyone concerned. Neal McDonough is somewhat underused, but he portrays the cop that won't be corrupted quite well, with as many enemies in the department as he has among the gangsters. I only hope they make more of these as Parker's future seemed to be shaping up in interesting ways. An of course, Jeremy Luke's Mickey Cohen was also great, not as flashy as Bugsy, but not afraid to get his hands dirty either, like Parker another character who is well set up for the future.
With six hours to tell the story "Mob City" managed to keep me interested the whole time, making it feel more like an event than a series. While some may have trouble with the initial pacing, I enjoyed having the time to take in all the details of this Los Angeles, it's police force and underworld. It was also interesting to note the beginnings of many events that would only pay off much later, like Siegel's quest to make Las Vegas the biggest thing around while his bosses' enthusiasm waned when the money went more out than in. Knowing what happened doesn't make the story any less compelling, instead it fills in some blanks, and enjoys working with some mysteries of the time.
Mob City stretches the limits of what's possible on TV, and having six episodes in three weeks made it feel as close to cinematic as possible. I'm hoping they come up with more, but whether they do or not, it's encouraging that a project like this could come out in the first place. This is a top notch cast, with amazing attention to period detail, from the sets and clothes to the speech patterns. The quality of the production is astounding for television. It may not make everyone happy, but it's a triumph nonetheless. Anyone who loves noir stories as much as Darabont apparently does, will have a lot to be happy about.