Lansky: Stop, He’s Already Dead!, by Tyler Smith
The gangster movie has long been a Hollywood staple. As far back as the 1930s, filmmakers drew inspiration from Prohibition Era figures like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, producing some of the most iconic movies in film history. Since then, Hollywood has chosen to tell more down-to-earth, less glamorized stories of the mafia. Between these films and the various television shows depicting various elements of organized crime, gangsters have been very well-represented on screen. From Public Enemy to The Godfather to Goodfellas to The Sopranos, it would seem we’ve seen every possible iteration of the mob, making it hard for any recent entries in the genre to tread any new ground. This is unfortunately the case for director Eytan Rockaway’s Lansky, which, despite featuring some solid performances, not only brings nothing new to the genre, but rarely seems particularly interested in doing so.
Revolving around the life of organized crime number cruncher Meyer Lansky, the film features a down-on-his-luck writer (Sam Worthington) who gets the opportunity to interview the aging mob boss (Harvey Keitel) about his life. As the writer tries to gather information for a tell-all book, he tries to reassure his long-suffering wife and daughter that he has finally hit the big time, all while fending off federal agents interested in Lansky’s hidden fortune. As Lansky tells his story, we flash back to his early days as a young hoodlum who devises a way to maximize profits while attempting to balance a tumultuous family life.
Certainly, the idea of an aging mobster telling his story is nothing new and indeed may have been perfected with Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film The Irishman, which contained much more wit and wisdom than this film. The depiction of Lansky’s early days has been seen elsewhere, including a David Mamet-penned TV movie starring Richard Dreyfuss. The glitz, glamor, and brutality of early gangsterism can be found in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Godfather saga, along with Barry Levinson’s wonderful Bugsy (which featured Ben Kingsley as Lansky and Keitel as tough guy Mickey Cohen). With the various elements of this film better executed in other films, there’s not much left to recommend. Certainly the subplot of the writer’s marital issues prove little more than a distraction (assuming, of course, that the viewer is even slightly interested in them, which is a generous leap).
The actors do what they can, with Keitel unsurprisingly faring the best. With the primary weight of action falling on the shoulders of the capable John Magaro, Keitel is free to sit back and effortlessly dispense wisdom and, occasionally, vague threats. Worthington, unfortunately, brings nothing to an already-underdeveloped character. Any time spent with his character is time stolen away from the much, much more intriguing Lansky, who in turn rarely rises above a second dimension.
Undoubtedly, the filmmakers thought they might capture the same dynamic found in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which an eager-but-flawed writer learns important lessons from a fascinating historical figure, but that film is executed at a much higher level than this. Too often, Lansky waxes philosophical about how his experiences in the mob can be applied to everyday life. It’s like a script pieced together from shallow witticisms and idioms given false weight based on a gritty context.
In the end, Lansky is a completely forgettable experience. We understand no more about Lansky – or the mentality of organized crime – than we did at the beginning. Perhaps that was the point, with the director trying to keep Lansky an enigmatic figure who plays his cards close to the vest. And yet the last moment of the film would seem to extol Lansky’s virtues, mentioning the invaluable contribution that Las Vegas – funded in no small part by the mob and partially overseen by Lansky himself – to the U.S. economy. When regarding the inclusion of this fact, juxtaposed to the brutal violence depicted in the film, and topped off with a mysterious and vague central figure, it would seem that the movie is trying to achieve a type of moral ambiguity about the role of crime in the history of the United States. Once again, previous gangster movies have done this in a more definitive way, whereas Lansky never quite pulls these disparate elements together into a clear statement. Instead, the movie is a scattershot attempt to bestow significance on Meyer Lansky without ever really knowing how to do so.