'Mob City' -- Good Gangster Fare, Off to Slow Start

mob city2From Media Life Magazine: When we think of classic gangster films, we think of their snappy dialogue, full of street poetry, and their atmospheric cinematography. But the main reason we remember the films is because they told a good story.

TNT’s six-hour miniseries “Mob City,” which pays homage to those old films in every well-lit shot and well-wrought line of dialogue, forgets to grab us early with a compelling plot. Though viewers will enjoy the look and feel of the show, they could lose patience. Even at the end of the first two hours, it’s unclear whether what the characters will eventually do — as opposed to how they appear and express themselves — will be worth our time.

But since the series’ creator and director, Frank Darabont, has made leisurely storytelling a virtue in such movies as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” and in AMC’s series “The Walking Dead,” he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Airing in two-hour blocks on Wednesdays starting tonight at 9, the series opens in New York in 1925, where Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and two associates ambush a rival gang. For the rest of the series, except for brief flashbacks, we’re in Los Angeles in 1947. Det. Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal) has been contacted by a lowlife comedian named Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg), who wants him to provide protection while Nash receives a blackmail payoff from a powerful local crime figure.

When word of the deal reaches Joe’s superiors on the LAPD, he’s assigned to a special anti-organized-crime task force run by Det. Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn), which the chief of police, William Parker (Neal McDonough), hopes will score a morale-building victory over the city’s criminal element.

We’ve been alerted to distrust Joe because he’s told us in voice-over that although “kids’ westerns” divide people into white hats and black hats, he lives in a world of gray hats.

The meeting between Hecky and the crime figure’s bagmen — including Sid Rothman (Robert Knepper), one of Siegel’s associates in that earlier scene — is suspenseful, but it’s marred by long speeches in which Hecky explains that the crooks always think they’re going to win, but they’re stupid, and now he’s on top, and look who’s getting the last laugh now. He then repeats those same points. Although the scene ends with a surprise, we’re a little happy that it’s over.

Hecky’s machinations drag in his girlfriend, Jasmine (Alexa Davalos), who is called in by the task force in the second episode. Trying to dodge the cops’ questions, she explains that Hecky’s hobby, stamp collecting, can be dangerous, giving a short history of a particularly valuable stamp. Viewers may start to feel that the screenwriter is stalling too.

Throughout, too many scenes have someone saying in four sentences what could be said in one. We start to feel that Darabont couldn’t decide which revision of a line he liked best, so he kept them all.

Consequently, both the plot and the character development proceed too slowly. A revelation that is intended to be the emotional payoff of the second episode barely advances something we knew — or at least strongly suspected — by the end of the first.

The cast, full of familiar but welcome TV faces, is generally good. They mostly resist the temptation to turn their performances into imitations of film noir styles.

Jon Bernthal, a veteran of “The Walking Dead,” has one of those character-actor faces that let him get by with doing no acting at all. At times he looks like a frame out of the graphic novel or film version of “Sin City.”

The sets and costumes are sumptuous and well shot and lit, but the show is struggling against the abundance of recent TV series and movies showing sharp-dressed gangsters in sophisticated nightclubs. Similarly, the use of period jazz starts to feel like a cliché.

A mob hit in an Italian restaurant is taut and visually pleasing, but it’s hard to tell whether it is advancing the main plot or merely there for our temporary enjoyment.

Viewers who decide to enjoy “Mob City” as it unfolds will probably appreciate it throughout, even if it doesn’t build eventually to a satisfactory payoff. It could be the TV equivalent of an interesting gray hat.