Producers: Jeff Hoffman, Robert Ogden Barnum and Eric Binns   Director: Eytan Rockaway   Screenplay: Eytan Rockaway   Cast: Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, John Magaro, AnnaSophia Robb, Minka Kelly, David Elliott, David Cade, Danny A. Abeckaser, Shane McRae, Jay Giannone, Dodge Prince and Robert Walker-Branchaud   Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

Grade: C

The famous gangsters of the twentieth century will always be with us, it seems—at least at the movies.  Among them the role of Meyer Lansky (1902-1983) onscreen has mostly fallen into the supporting category.  True, there was a 1999 HBO biographical drama starring Richard Dreyfuss and written by David Mamet, no less, but it’s pretty much forgotten today (and justifiably so); it’s probably Ben Kingsley’s turn as Lansky in Warren Beatty’s “Bugsy” that’s best remembered, though Lee Strasberg’s performance as Hyman Roth, a character clearly based on Lansky, in “The Godfather Part II” is perhaps even more firmly ensconced in the public’s memory.

Now writer-director Eytan Rockaway, in his sophomore feature after 2015’s barely noticed “The Abandoned,” has moved Lansky to center stage again, with mixed results.

On the positive side, there’s the pleasure of watching Harvey Keitel, who brings an almost impish quality to the elderly Lansky, living a lonely, simple life in Miami as he confronts his mortality, having recently gotten a terminal diagnosis.  He’s decided to finally tell his story for publication, and relates a sort of “greatest hits” summary to his hand-picked biographer. 

His remarks introduce flashbacks, beginning with his childhood calculating the odds in sidewalk craps games and quickly segueing to his early gang activity, in which, played by John Magaro, he finds considerable success along with his far more volatile partner Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade).  Their effectiveness leads to collaboration with mob kingpin Charlie “Lucky” Luciano (Shane McRae).  He and Luciano, in fact, are the fellows credited with putting the organization in organized crime.  That expertise culminates in his takeover of the gambling business in Cuba, with government support.  The development of Vegas as a mob Mecca is another of his achievements, though it does cost him dearly in terms of the loss of his friend Bugsy.  All these events are treated in thumbnail fashion, as are those in his personal life, particularly his marriage to Anne (AnnaSophia Robb), which has its ups and downs.

Throughout Lansky is portrayed in relatively mild terms, as more cerebral than vicious.  True, his association with Murder Incorporated doesn’t go unmentioned, nor do the deaths he connived in, like that of mob boss Salvatore Maranzano (Jay Giannone), which is shown in quite explicit terms; but it’s Siegel who’s the muscle while Lansky urges him on and determines what’s most lucrative.  On the domestic front, Anne berates him for his criminality as their family’s reputation suffers, but his response, though abusive, stays within limits.

Moreover, we’re told of his better qualities.  He insists that the games in his establishments be on the level.  He’s extremely solicitous of his son Buddy (Dodge Prince), who’s afflicted with cerebral palsy.  During World War II he sends his army of thugs to teach members of the German Bund in the U.S. a lesson, and helps the Navy collar spies on the docks.  (Again, the violence gets pretty graphic here.)  And when approached by Golda Meier’s emissaries, he’s generous with money and weapons, which makes Israel’s refusal to recognize his right of return when he later seeks to escape threats of prosecution for tax evasion in the U.S. all the more painful to him. 

This rather positive portrait of Lansky can be explained away, of course, by observing that he’s the one telling the story, though some might still object.  But there are other criticisms from a dramatic perspective that are harder to deflect.  Rockaway’s presentation of the various episodes is stagey, often stiff, although the craft contributions—April Lasky’s production design, Peter Flinckenberg’s cinematography, Laura Wallgren’s set decoration, Laura Cristina Ortiz’s costumes—are, given the obvious budgetary limitations, quite good.  The editing by Martin Hunter and Steven Rosenblum handles the many time shifts and episodic cuts reasonably well, too.   

More problematic is the acting which, apart from Keitel, can be charitably described as variable.  Cade is okay as Siegel and Magaro more than adequate, though he really looks and sounds more like a young Joe Pesci than a young Keitel, but most of the others are a tad stiff.    

Still, the biographical side of things is interesting.  It’s the other side of the equation where the film is seriously lacking.  The writer Keitel’s Lansky unaccountably selects as his biographer is David Stone (Sam Worthington), a down-on-his-luck guy with serious personal problems.  It’s a poorly written role even before Rockaway turns Stone into a dope who allows himself to be seduced by Maureen (Minka Kelly), an informant obviously planted by the authorities, specifically a couple of inept FBI agents, played by David Elliott and Danny A. Abeckaser, who are intent on finding the millions they believe Lansky has socked away.  Using the writer’s story as a counterpoint to Lansky’s isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but Rockaway carries it off ineptly. 

Still, the film provides a workmanlike portrait of Meyer Lansky, and in terms of Keitel’s performance, something more than that.  It’s unfortunate that what surrounds him is disappointing, but then so was the Feds’ search for his ill-gotten gains, which has about the same result as what Geraldo Rivera found when he infamously opened the supposed safe of Al Capone.