Wednesday, December 4, 2013

TNT's 'Mob City:' Ultrastylish, Ultraviolent, Totally Riveting

Jon Bernthal is Det. Joe Teague in 'Mob City' (TNT/Doug Hyun)
Nazis and gangsters – why do we love them so?

Embodiments of complete evil: ruthless, psychopathic killing machines without conscience, obsessed only with acquiring more power, control and territory. Cocky, ultraviolent maniacs we can observe from a safe distance in the cozy surroundings of our living rooms and neighborhood theaters. And unlike video games or graphic novels, we all know this stuff really happened, which adds a underlying layer of fright and fascination to the proceedings.

There are at least a dozen cable series devoted to the vicious dealings of America's mobsters past and present – including one show on Bio called, simply, Mobsters. The Military Channel, for one, might as well be renamed "All Nazis, All the Time."

On Turner Classic Movies, the day before the premiere of TNT's lavish tribute to blood and bullets, Mob City, TCM host Robert Osborne presented a marathon of classic Warner Bros. gangster movies from the '30s and '40s – White Heat, Key Largo and The Roaring Twenties among them. He was accompanied by actor Ed Burns, who stars as Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in the new three-week, six-hour miniseries.

To me, this was a really risky move. After screening hour upon hour of timeless, seminal performances by Cagney, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and the like, it would be very easy for Mob City to pale badly by comparison.

Ed Burns as Ben 'Bugsy' Siegel (TNT/Doug Hyun)
Ah, but they knew what they were doing. Mob City, which begins with back-to-back, one-hour installments at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday (Dec. 4, 2013), is a bouquet to badmen. What should we call this, neo-noir? It's brightly colorful, gorgeously filmed, sensationally stylish (there's a prominent pair of period black-on-white striped saddle shoes I would be proud to wear today) and exceptionally violent, beginning with a hijack scene and a trio of tommy guns that seem to spew their rat-a-tat symphony of death far past the point of overkill.

This isn't to say Mob City is the equal or better of those immortal mob movies of the past. In a very distinct way, however, it has reinvigorated the genre in order to stand proudly on its own. Style and substance. TNT has invested an extraordinary amount of care and cash to promote this original production: It is the first series in history to have its screenplay adapted and published on Twitter (@MobCityTNT, a so-called "adaptweetion"), and the network sponsored a pop-up haberdashery in New York's Chelsea Market district to celebrate Mob City's remarkable array of fashionable men's fedoras.

Sometimes specials receive this type of big publicity buildup because the network knows it has a dog and is begging people to sit with it. In this case, I think TNT wants to make sure you don't miss it.

Mob City is the beautiful delivery of director-writer-executive producer Frank Darabont, the former showrunner for AMC's The Walking Dead who recently told Vulture that "sociopaths" forced him off the hit series in 2011 and he hasn't seen an episode since. Clearly, he found another diversion to occupy his time. This is Darabont's visual revenge, down to plucking his Walking Dead co-star Jon Bernthal to play his lead here as LA Police Det. Joe Teague, a cop with a face that looks like it's lost a fight or two and whose crimebusting techniques are, to say the least, unorthodox.

Everything here feels like it's been ratcheted up a notch or three for modern consumption. The all-too-familiar nightclub scene with the flirtatious, voluptuous bartender and the rugged cop, for example, becomes a long, suggestive dialogue steamy enough to melt the buttons on your remote. Based on the book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin, Mob City dramatizes the real-life crusade by 1940s Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough) to rid his booming postwar city from the scourge of underworld kingpins like Siegel and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) while attempting to weed out the corrupt factions within his own department. (Burns, in his portrayal, manages to stand apart from the well-entrenched image of Warren Beatty as Bugsy and create a cleaner, more streamlined character.)

The pilot revolves around Hecky – not Shecky – Nash, played by Simon Pegg, a washed-up
comedian who alternately reminds you of a bleached-out David Caruso (if such a thing is possible), ESPN yakker Colin Cowherd and (for our slightly older readers) Frank Gorshin, or a mashup of all three. Hecky is a childhood friend of Cohen's, and recruits Teague, who has just been assigned to a new anti-mob task force, to serve as his bodyguard while he carries out a blackmail plot against one of Mickey's top associates.

As Hecky and Teague wait for the exchange to occur on a secluded expanse of oil fields outside the city, Nash, in a long and luscious monologue, sums up the miniseries and offers an explanation for our obsession with gangsters:

"This city," he sneers. "It's so damn beautiful. It's like a sky full of stars...but only from a distance. Up close, it's all gutter.

"The wise guys, they always get the best. Money falls out of the sky for these idiots. You know the kicker? Dumbest mugs you ever met."

Mob City is replete with lots of faces you'll recognize, even if you can't recall their names (including an older, dumbed-down Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue) and Daniel Roebuck (The Fugitive), who has ballooned like a zeppelin), lotsa smoking, lotsa drinking, lotsa cursing and a whole lotta blood. You've been warned. Hey, it's a mob movie, right? And better than any of its ilk you've seen on the big screen in quite a while.

On a scale of 1-10: Mob City – 9 clicks.