Bugsy (1991)
Bugsy (1991)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 16 min.

Release Date: December 20th, 1991 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Barry Levinson Actors: Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna, Richard Sarafian, Bebe Neuwirth

 


 

G

angster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty) aims to take over the southern California racket of kingpin Jack Dragna (Richard Sarafian), a like-minded cold-blooded killer. As he scouts out Hollywood, he meets up with actor pal George (Joe Mantegna), who is currently filming a show called “Manpower.” On the set, Ben is immediately enamored by extra Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), who isn’t afraid to flirt and affront in equal measure, though she’s seeing someone else – and Ben is married.

“You’re not going to hurt me, are you?” Siegel’s reputation precedes him – his viciousness, influences, connections, and considerable resources, which he flaunts and utilizes to great success, usurping territory and ingratiating himself into the lives of powerful people. But he’s not without enemies, including competing mobster Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel), various temporary partnerships anxious to turn on him, and law enforcement – which watches his movements with great interest.

Although the film contains plenty of gangster movie staples, including violence, betrayal, shifting allegiances, unavoidable tragedies, and plenty of collateral damage, it’s primarily a love story between two exceptionally free spirits. Ben is so used to getting what he wants that he’s confident, fearless, and almost unmanageably volatile, while Virginia is drawn to power – and equally ambitious and intrepid with her socialization. As it so happens, she’s also the only person Siegel can’t control, which brings him no end of anxiety – and contributes to his ruin. Neither one is a typical protagonist, yet since the picture is presented from their perspective, they’re shown to be charismatic and impulsive in an absorbing, stunning way. Nevertheless, Ben’s irrational behavior, his uncontrollable jealousy, and his extreme vanity become his downfall. Despite the romanticism, he’s undoubtedly a brutal, cruel villain; though the viewpoint aims to sugarcoat his inhumanity, he’s never exactly sympathetic.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Ben.” Since Siegel is a historical figure, this biographical tale weaves notable components of history into the mix, ranging from World War II to the inception of Las Vegas, as it draws its dark portrait of a conflicted, aberrant, explosive hoodlum. His life is engaging, even when he’s making continuous questionable decisions, alternating between disastrous familial choices and shady business dealings and escalating costs associated with the construction of the Flamingo Hotel. Ironically, his legacy becomes more important than his personal wealth, though it would be infamy – not stardom – eventually associated with his name. The players, including supporting roles by Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, and Bebe Neuwirth, are all fantastic, but the storytelling itself is intermittently longwinded, dwelling on newsworthy elements and character development that don’t always push things along. By the end, it’s the unconventional, erratic love story that remains the film’s most potent ingredient (the melancholy score by Ennio Morricone isn’t bad either), even if the educational notes about the famous rogue provide modest entertainment value (and perhaps a stronger incentive to look up further details about the larger-than-life racketeer and visionary, whose portrayal here takes numerous favorable liberties, right alongside a much rosier depiction of Hill).

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10