the fresh films reviews

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Bugsy (1991)

Barry Levinson
135 minutes
Mark Johnson
Barry Levinson
Warren Beatty
James Toback

Cast includes:

Bugsy Siegel Warren Beatty
Virginia Hill Annette Bening
Mickey Cohen Harvey Keitel
Meyer Lansky Ben Kingsley
Harry Greenberg Elliott Gould
George Raft Joe Mantegna
Countess di Frasso Bebe Neuwirth
Charlie "Lucky" Luciano Bill Graham
Joe Adonis Lewis Van Bergen



Any film project involving Warren Beatty has always tended to end up as the Warren Beatty show, and this highly successful crime-drama certainly was no exception. Even if Beatty was able to stay away from the director's chair, he pulled more strings than his own performance, and as usual he wanted grandeur and epic proportions. Luckily, so did Bugsy Siegel himself, and Beatty's self-conscious, larger-than-life performance fits this persona hand-in-glove. It's a fitting turn by the ageing Mr. Hollywood, who seems to know quite a bit about what Siegel was going through.

The story follows depression era mobster, visionary and lover-of-life Bugsy Siegel. Regardless of our opinion of his morals, ruthlessness and criminal behaviour, if there's one thing we envy him it's his vivacity and carefreeness. After operating the streets of New York, he is sent to California to control the mob there, but instead falls in love with both the place, the opportunities, and a B-movie actress called Virginia Hill (Annette Bening). Bugsy (a nickname he despises) eventually convinces his big-money superiors that it would be a good idea to build a luxurious leisure and gambling resort in the middle of the Nevada desert, and after a bit of hesitation they buy the idea. And so Bugsy starts building his vision that was to become Las Vegas. The problem is just that he struggles with constant budget overruns and his accountant is a woman trusted by nobody but himself.

The story, as written by James Toback, is a straight-forward biography in structure, and Levinson's direction is steady but unremarkable, meaning that the effect is left to Beatty and Bugsy Siegel's creative antics, the latter of which claim the historians there were quite a few. Siegel's role in building the Flamenco is reportedly exaggerated and things probably didn't happen in the order that this script suggests, but that doesn't make or break a film like this. This is the entertainment type of biopic; the only thing that it takes seriously is itself, which probably rings a bell with the lead actor. That being said, the lead actor helped by the off-screen situation was able to create arguably his most steaming onscreen romance since Bonnie and Clyde. And that the relationship between him and Annette Bening as Virginia Hill is arguably the film's best asset. In some of the scenes between the two, Beatty is more forceful than he ever was before or since, and Bening alternates brilliantly between sultry eroticism and potent drama. A balancing that very few of this period's actresses were able to pull of equally effective (i.e. Glenn Close, Sharon Stone).

Another of Bugsy's best assets are the Academy Award winning period sets (by Dennis Gassner and Nancy Haigh) and the attention to detail in them. Although the screenplay grants itself quite a bit of artistic freedom, the sets look and feel wonderfully 1940s, from the dark mobster streets of the east coast via the glamour of Hollywood's golden age and to a dirty Las Vegas seemingly stuck in the western era. They create an attractive background for a solid and interesting biopic on one of America's most (in)famous gangsters.

Re-reviewed: Copyright 27.10.2016 Fredrik Gunerius Fevang
Original review:
Copyright 17.1.2003 Fredrik Gunerius Fevang