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All Sorts of 'Fellas

This is not your godfather's mob. Looking for a fresh take on the genre, Hollywood is offering up a black kingpin, an Asian hit man and a spoof with a gangster God in search of grace.

November 03, 1996|Gene Mustain | Gene Mustain is co-author of three true-crime books, including "Gotti: Rise & Fall," the inspiration for HBO's recent film "Gotti."

It was bound to happen because everything does in Hollywood. But it's here. A movie that portrays God as a gangster.

We're speaking metaphorically, of course. Hollywood souls with money they wish to keep aren't about to literally depict God taking a bat to some suspect servant's head or smashing a grapefruit into the face of some weepy wench. No, we mean Richard Dreyfuss in a camp idea, "Mad Dog Time," as imagined by Larry Bishop, a writer-actor making his directorial debut. Dreyfuss plays a boss of bosses, but he's really God--and dangerously lunatic to boot.

We will let Bishop explain: "I've always been fascinated by the expression, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' In some weird moment while driving around L.A., I personified it. What if 'grace' were God's girlfriend Grace and they got disconnected? Grace went one way, God another.

"Then I realized, take grace from God, God becomes pure power. And what personifies power more than a gangster? So the gangster world is the movie's setting. Dreyfuss has lost Diane Lane, who's Grace; he's God without grace. Pure power. The power thing is why people love gangster movies."

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There may be other reasons, but there's no question about the love, or at least fascination. Hollywood has known this virtually since there were movies--since, for instance, D.W. Griffith's gritty 1912 one-reeler "Musketeers of Pig Alley." It was about gangsters in the immigrant way station of New York's Lower East Side, which incubated some of Hollywood's favorite gangsters and actors--Lucky Luciano and Edward G. Robinson, among many.

Gangster stories contain all the big emotions--fear, love, hate, greed, jealousy, lust, hubris, betrayal, revenge. They come with a built-in rationale for conflict and violence. On occasion, as in "The Godfather, Part II," they rise to Shakespearean heights.

"Gangster films offer great moments," says Barbara Scharres, director of the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. "They show a world that, morally, is more black and white than the average person's. They're about great issues. Live or die. Hero or rat."

Like another home-grown genre, the western, the gangster story fills our need for mythic characters. But it has outlived the western because it can be as tragically contemporary as a drive-by shooting.

Still, it would go the way of the western if filmmakers didn't keep spinning it in fresh ways and opening it up to new audiences--and echoing the changes in gangs through the years to mark their continually evolving racial and ethnic makeups. With the gangster stories in this fall's crowded movie marketplace, and with others in the pipeline, filmmakers are starting to do both.

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"Mad Dog Time" is fresh--and wacky. God and Grace aside, it's really a gangster-movie sendup, but the big emotions remain in play. Even as it pokes fun, it plays on our hidden desire to use power as wickedly as bad guys do. Come on, admit it, haven't you fantasized about committing violence against the next jerk who cuts you off on the Ventura Freeway?

"Everyone has this will to feel more powerful," says Bishop, expounding on his power theme. "It's what connects us all. Even Mother Teresa feels more power with what she does than if she didn't do what she does. So right away, even with her, you have a linkup with Al Capone."

"Mad Dog Time" opens Friday, as does a vastly different gangster story, "The Funeral." It's about a 1930s family destroyed by a handed-down tradition of revenge. The film, directed by Abel Ferrara from a smart script by Nicholas St. John, introduces us to three racketeering brothers.

But the brothers are not what you expect racketeers to be. Introspective. Emotionally troubled. Closet communist. Except for an extraordinary tradition, they are ordinary men with ordinary doubts. The oldest, the introspective one, is played by Christopher Walken. He's most trapped by tradition--you might be too if your father ordered you to kill someone when you were 13.

"The film is about me and Nicky's grandfathers," says Ferrara, referring to St. John, a frequent collaborator. "We're both of Neapolitan descent. We watch these [gangster] movies, and they're about a world that doesn't exist. Well, it does and it doesn't. But ours is closer to what the real deal was. We wanted to give one from the inside."

"Mad Dog Time" and "The Funeral" arrive in the wake of another movie set in the gangster milieu, "Bound." This first feature directed by brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski flies in yet another direction. It's a caper movie, offbeat like "Mad Dog Time" but featuring a moll who falls for a butch plumber (talk about a fresh spin!) and plots to relieve a mob boss of $2 million. Jennifer Tilly is the moll, Gina Gershon the plumber.

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