Mobsters and mafiosos have been the subject of movies ever since the beginning of film history. The combination of vicious brutality that belies a gentlemanly, sometimes even honorable, outward veneer is ripe with dramatic storytelling gold. Ever since The Godfather, this genre has most often been executed with an artistic touch that seeks to illuminate the inherent contradictions that arise in the ostensibly familial world of organized crime. The latest entry in this long film tradition is Lansky, a biopic of legendary mobster and Murder, Inc. co-founder Meyer Lansky.
The movie is more or less a catalog of Lansky’s (Harvey Keitel) rise through the criminal world to the illustrious heights he eventually reached. It tells this story by way of conversations between Lanksy and David Stone (Sam Worthington), a fictitious struggling writer who the crime boss decided to entrust with his life’s story. Lansky had lived a fantastical life and wanted to tell the truth about it to somebody before he died of terminal lung cancer.
Lansky started his criminal career as a very young man who went from being a Russian-born Jewish outsider in New York City’s Lower Eastside to running a successful gambling operation throughout the city with his lifetime colleague, the equally infamous Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The storyline cuts back and forth between the older Lansky talking to Stone and a much younger Meyer Lansky (John Magaro) building his empire. He would go on to partner with Charles “Lucky” Lucciano as both men rose into the upper echelon of organized crime with operations all over the United States and even Cuba. These men, with others, would go on to forge the modern casino gaming industry that today employs millions of people nationwide.
The screenplay tries to give an honest and complete depiction of Lansky. We see that he is willing to murder someone who has crossed him without batting an eyelash. He is often portrayed as a poor husband who is gone at all hours of the night, routinely commits adultery, and doesn’t seem to mind the criminal label he has stamped onto his children and family. However, he is a more complicated man than it seems. He is shown as an asset to his adopted nation who helped the Department of the Navy root out German agents in New York City in the years leading up to American involvement in World War II. He is also depicted as a proud Jew who donated generously to the young nation of Israel and is heartbroken by efforts to deny his right to settle there later in life. By the closing credits, the overall picture created is one of a flawed man who did his best to do right by himself and his family, which is one of the most relatable themes in storytelling.
I love a good mobster movie, so I wanted to like Lansky so badly, but it falls short in a number of ways. The narrative delivery method of the elderly man confiding his life’s secrets to a younger writer (which is entirely fictitious as far as I can tell) is immediately clumsy. The scenes of the older Lansky bonding with Stone in an awkwardly paternal way take up a lot of screen time and only seem to serve as interruptions to the genuinely compelling story of Meyer Lanksy’s life.
There is an unspeakable amount of David Stone in this movie. He struggles with his broken marriage, he tries feebly to relate with his kids, he has a love interest, it goes on and on and none of it adds anything meaningful to the story. This isn’t helped at all by the fact that the character is not likable in any way. He is depicted as unsuccessful, dumb, dishonest, and cowardly and I don’t see why anybody would want to root for him. I don’t even think it’s Worthington’s fault — there just isn’t a lot there to work with.
There is another subplot that involves the FBI trying to bust Lansky using Stone, and it also seems completely out of place. The agents involved are self-interested people who want to put a dying man behind bars just to advance their own careers. The presence of this plotline seems particularly egregious since it fails to really go anywhere. The film as a whole loses its way towards the end and there is no real climax. Instead, the telling of Lansky’s life events reaches its conclusion and it’s time for the story to end (Keitel’s Lansky literally says as much).
Still, there are some bright spots for Lansky. Harvey Keitel does an amazing job playing the aged Lanksy and John Magaro puts in a good performance as well. There are several scenes where the viewer may be compelled to criticize them for giving such cliché, over-the-top performances as gangsters before realizing that Meyer Lansky is one of the individuals who made that image the standard, so the characterization is perfectly appropriate. The actors are sometimes forced to muddle through poorly-written dialogue, but overall, the mobster half of this movie is well done. If you cut out all the extra-curricular scenes with Sam Worthington, you’d be left with a pretty great hour-long movie about Meyer Lansky’s life.
Lansky has a great story at the heart of it, but it’s buried beneath far too much nonsense. The film is meandering and glutted with unnecessary content. It squanders a vintage performance by Harvey Keitel and does a poor job doing justice to the momentous historical events that it portrays. If you’re very interested in learning about Meyer Lansky, you can go ahead and give this a try, but you shouldn’t bother otherwise.
Synopsis: When the aging Meyer Lansky is investigated one last time by the Feds who suspect he has stashed away millions of dollars over half a century, the retired gangster spins a dizzying tale, revealing the untold truth about his life as the notorious boss of Murder Inc. and the National Crime Syndicate.
Director: Eytan Rockaway
Writers: Eytan Rockaway, Robert Rockaway
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, John Magaro, Minka Kelly
Runtime: 1 Hour, 59 Minutes
Releases: June 25th, 2021 (USA)
My name is Kevin and I have been writing about movies with GNN since January 2020. Some of my favorite films are Inception, Django Unchained, American Hustle, and Gladiator. I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University in May 2018. I am currently self-employed in e-commerce and live in Tempe, Arizona. In my free time, you can probably find me slinging spells in Magic: the Gathering or dusting off a retro video game console (Super Nintendo is my favorite).