Monday 16 May 2016

Movie Review: Bugsy (1991)

An uneven biography of Ben "Bugsy" Siegel's later years, Bugsy tries to turn a mobster into a visionary and a lover, and succeeds only in patches.

It's the early 1940s, and charismatic criminal Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty) is dispatched by his gang to open new territories in California. Despite advice from his lifelong crime partner Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) to adopt a slow and low-key approach, Siegel wastes no time in flashing his money around Los Angeles and taking control of the local extortion rackets, including recruiting his main rival Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) as his chief lieutenant.

Through his connection with childhood friend George (a reference to actor George Raft, portrayed by Joe Mantegna), Bugsy also falls in love with the Hollywood scene. He is immediately infatuated with starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), who has a long history of association with gangsters and assorted semi-celebrities. She initially plays hard to get but eventually they become a couple, despite Siegel being married to Esta (Wendy Phillips).

Bugsy then divides his time between managing a criminal empire, sometimes with extreme brutality, and juggling domestic duties with one wife, two kids and one lover. He eventually turns his attention to the Nevada desert, where he imagines the possibility of opening a resort offering gambling, sex and luxury accommodation. But the Flamingo resort proves to be easy to envision but difficult to build, straining all of Bugsy's relationships.

That the movie is called Bugsy while the main character seethes in anger against any use of that nickname is a hint of the problems that nibble away at the film's intentions. Directed by Barry Levinson and written by James Toback, Bugsy was a long-term Warren Beatty project, who saw an intriguing subject matter in the cold blooded killer who got involved in the early business of building Las Vegas. He is a dreamer seeking love to fill the void in his soul caused by wanton violence; he is also a goofy family man, a fast talker, and a bad businessman with no sense for money. Unfortunately Levinson and Toback get lost in the puzzle of a complex man, and the film never latches onto a worthwhile arc.

Trying too hard to soften the man's edges, the film ignores Bugsy's formative years as a cold-blooded hitman. Beatty's magnetism instead shifts the focus to creating a likeable guy who falls hard for an alluring woman and then pursues an enigmatic vision. The romance elements occupy the centre of the film and take far too long, with occasional jarring interruptions for scenes demonstrating Siegel's propensity for extreme anger. In pursuit of a fiction better than fact, compared to the real story the film overplays Bugsy's role in initiating the Flamingo project.

Beatty and Bening became a real-life couple soon after the film's release, and they do share unquestionable on-screen chemistry. Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley are serviceable but offer little beyond typical grim gangster traits. Elliott Gould has a couple of pivotal scenes as a none-too-bright Siegel associate who evolves from dimwit to a real problem.

Ennio Morricone contributes one of his least memorable scores, the emphasis on romance undermining any attempts to build rousing music worthy of a grand criminal enterprise. The film does look magnificent, with rich colours and lavish wardrobes capturing the glamour of Los Angeles at the height of the studio era.

Bugsy is a glossy but episodic effort, often stumbling over itself as it oscillates wildly between the red mist of bloodthirsty outrage and the soft glow of cutesy romance.

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