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There seems to be three kinds of film noir. The first, the kind that simply was, comprises the original old movies adapted from pulp novels or written from scratch but created without any self-awareness of a genre beyond that of “period piece” or “stylistic drama.” That kind of noir, now celebrated, set out to tell a specific kind of story without looking in the mirror too much.
What followed were films devoted to the church of noir, kneeling at the altar of the visual styles and reveling in the dated, purposefully purple prose. You can’t miss that version because it wants so desperately to be nostalgically reverential. When it’s done right, like L.A. Confidential, you can get absorbed into the execution of the genre’s best elements.
Lastly, there’s something like Watchmen and films of that ilk, which squeeze all the black and white out of noir until it runs red like blood, then ratchet things up into some kind of hyper-noir, where the director and actors are almost winking at the audience for nailing (and then blowing out to extremes) the defining elements of the genre.
Mob City, TNT’s six-hour limited event series from writer-director Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead), falls into the middle category. It desperately wants to be noir. It makes no claims upon anything else but devotion to the style. Here’s Darabont on the subject: “Noir has always been a special love of mine in both literature and film. Our show is a love letter to that genre, a playground of strong personalities where the stakes are often life or death, a blend of historical fact and heated, pulpy fiction.”
That is both the strength and the weakness of Mob City (and in many ways, most artistic attempts at noir). The genre is so distinct — like a Western — that mimicking it (the second kind described above) rather than just being it (the first kind described above) immediately makes the viewer aware of the artifice and reduces the ability to get lost in the story — because the accouterments end up being the story.
You know: tough guys, cagey dames, wet streets, machine guns, fedoras, new suits, old cars — and darkness. Always darkness. Toss in a lot of smoking and neon and pretty much you’ve got the ingredients of noir. Now, how will you mix them up to tell a story?
In Mob City‘s case, the story is adapted from John Buntin‘s nonfiction book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. It’s set in 1947, when Los Angeles still had street cars and the city was exploding — attracting mobsters in droves and crooked cops in their wake. For Los Angeles, this battle between the black hats and the white hats — and those hiding under gray hats — would, like New York and Chicago before it, help define its future.
Darabont says that he took the true parts from Buntin’s history and then gave himself “license to depart from the book and invent the history underneath the history, exploring the sexy and violent dark underbelly of postwar Los Angeles through the lens of the film noir genre.”
With a collection of excellent character actors and a few surprises in smaller roles, coupled with beautiful and stylized visuals, Mob City mostly delivers on Darabont’s intent. The problem is that once the audience knows something like Mob City is going to be a slavish devotion to the genre, then the clichés of noir end up being the defining feature and not so much the story. And that seems like a lost opportunity.
In Mob City, Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) plays ex-Marine Det. Joe Teague, who gets tossed into a special mob task force created by Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough) derided as “Billy Boy Scout” by many of his jaded troops as he tries to clean up the city. The task force is headed up by Det. Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn — one of the many familiar faces doing fine work with the material he’s given). The immediate targets are Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (Ed Burns), Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke), their lawyer Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia) and some of their henchman, including Siegel and Meyer Lanksy‘s closest friend and ruthless hitman, Sid Rothman (played with can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him magnetism by Robert Knepper). Caught somewhere in between is Jasmine, the beautiful night club photo girl played by Alexa Davalos.
For his part, Bernthal looks like he was born to be a noir star and he’s the center of Mob City, but in the first two hours he has to keep his past and his motivations close to the vest. That limits Bernthal a bit, but he’s unleashed as the series goes on.
The first two hours drag a bit and will need an audience devoted to the style to stick with them. By the third episode, Mob City begins to take off and, after three of its six hours, the audience pretty much knows what the limitations and benefits of the genre really are. If you get through the first two hours, you’re going to ride Mob City until the end.
And it’s a pretty fun ride, driven by the visuals (always a Darabont strong suit) and the emerging stories of the players. There’s not much in the way of originality or genre-busting in Mob City, but then again that doesn’t seem to be the point. With Bernthal, Knepper, Burns, McDonough and others getting to play at noir, a rhythm begins to set in and lovers of the genre will enjoy the homage.
Mob City is a big, bloody, flashy, violent and pulpy exercise that slowly builds into some solid entertainment and it’s a fine, identity-bending effort on the part of TNT.
But with all of this talent, you can’t help wishing that Darabont’s goal was to redefine a genre — much like he did with The Walking Dead — and not simply bow to it.
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