There have been a couple of periods in movie history when gangster movies were a dime a dozen. They were all the rage and for a time big studios were quick to get behind them. They aren’t quite as plentiful these days, but as someone long fascinated with the rise and decline of the Mafia in the United States, I’m always up for a good gangster flick. “Lansky” is certainly a good one, but your reaction to it may depend on how much you already know about the notorious Jewish mobster.
Meyer Lansky was a major player in organized crime for sixty years and was instrumental in putting together the National Crime Syndicate with Italian mob boss and long-time friend Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Yet despite decades of underworld activity in New York, Las Vegas, even Cuba, Lansky evaded serious prison time much to the chagrin of a dogged FBI. Lansky was brilliant and knew how to run his business and manage money. He was also loyal to the gangland code which earned him respect with both the Jewish and Italian gangs.
With “Lansky” writer-director Eytan Rockaway sets out to do two things – give a biographical sketch of Lansky’s rise to power within the Mafia and tell the story of a struggling writer offered the opportunity of a lifetime but forced to be a pawn for the FBI. The film is based on actual interviews conducted with Lansky by the director’s father Robert Rockaway. This adds an undeniable authenticity to the mobster’s story that (along with two really strong performances) drives the film. In fact the Lansky bio is done so well that the writer’s story can only pale in comparison.
In 1981 David Stone (Sam Worthington), a talented yet down-on-his-luck writer, is in Miami for what could be a career defining opportunity. He tells his frustrated wife he’s in Miami to do some book signings. In reality he’s been summoned there to meet the infamous Meyer Lansky. After 60 years in the mob business Lansky has finally mustered the courage to quit only to find out he is terminally ill. So he offers David the chance to tell his real story which is only to be published after he dies. And lest we forget that he’s still a man of the old ways, Lansky offers David a rather blunt warning, “Betray me and there will be consequences.”
Lansky’s story is told through a series of meetings in a Miami diner. Over cups of coffee and with a disarming gentleness, the aged gangster (played by an intensely convincing Harvey Keitel) begins unpacking his complex life. Rockaway covers a lot of ground including a scene from Lansky’s childhood in New York City where as a kid he was already working numbers at back alley dice games. But the vast majority of the flashbacks focus on his gang days where he’s played by John Magaro. The impeccably cast Magaro is just the right fit in terms of demeanor and stature. And if you close your eyes, at times you’ll swear you’re hearing Joe Pesci.
Rockaway gives us a vivid picture of just how powerful and influential Lansky became. We see both his smarts and ruthlessness in his early days running gambling rooms with close friend Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade). We witness him putting together a group of wise guys to beat down Nazi sympathizers in the early days of World War 2. We watch as he forms the brutal Murder Inc., a team of cold-blooded killers responsible for the murder of hundreds at the behest of the Syndicate. And we get a look at his days operating post-war casinos for the Cuban government. This is just some of the ground covered, all of it connected by Keitel’s pitch-perfect storytelling. We occasionally see small glimmers of remorse in the gangster’s eyes. But then we get telling scenes such as when he coldly recounts the execution of a father of three while casually eating a piece of pie.
Rockaway emphasizes what made Lansky such a complex man by sometimes stepping away from the world of speakeasies and mob hits. The director tries to capture his human side by showing personal moments such as his relationship with his son who has cerebral palsy. Or his sympathies for Israel and the Jews who suffered during the Holocaust. We also get a taste of the deep feelings of betrayal when Israel refused to grant him citizenship. And we gets glimpses into his marriage which starts happy but slowly crumbles under the weight of Lansky’s mob priorities.
As for the other story, Worthington gives us a solid performance playing a man with his own crumbling home life and out-of-whack priorities. In one sense he feels he’s doing the right thing and that this book will get him back on track. But at what cost to his marriage? There’s some good groundwork there, but ultimately his story needs more heft. It drags a bit with a flat romantic angle with a mysterious woman at his motel (Minka Kelly), but then picks up when the FBI approach him. Despite a failed decades-long investigation, the feds are convinced the impenetrable Lansky has $300 million stashed away somewhere. Desperate and out of options, they attempt to bully Dave into becoming their informant.
I doubt “Lansky” will ever find itself mentioned among the very best from the gangster movie genre. But that doesn’t mean Rockaway hasn’t put together something well worth watching. Keitel and Magaro team up to give a captivating portrayal of Meyer Lansky that is firmly rooted in the real account. I still wonder how it will play for those with no knowledge of his gangland history or the context surrounding many key events in his life. And I doubt the secondary story will be enough to make up the difference. But I was enthralled with Lansky’s story and Keitel’s re-enforces his status as one of the overlooked acting greats. “Lansky” releases June 25th in select theaters and on VOD.