‘A Guy Walks Into A Bar’
When it was announced that The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont was creating a neo-noir series based on 1940’s gangsters and the Los Angeles Police Department who battled against them, I was undeniably excited. There’s a reason why people love the likes of Scarface, The Godfather, Goodfellas and Boardwalk Empire, and why the real-life mobsters who inspired those movies – Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel – continue to be a source of inspiration for directors and writers. It’s the allure of old fashioned gangsters, the fascination and thrill surrounding the smokey era of jazz and organised crime that doesn’t seem to ever get old. Mob City might be just another story about LA gangsters and the LAPD, but with a strong start and effortless style sizzling from scene to scene, it might turn out to be a lot more.
Whilst the title of Mob City’s premiere episode sounds like the start of a bad joke, the only joke lies with those who were foolish enough to miss this extremely polished first taste of Darabont’s take on John Buntin’s L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. A Guy Walks Into A Bar begins in prohibition era 1925 as three men walk through the streets of New York with violin cases. These men are a young Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Sid Rothman. After a clever ruse where they pose as street musicians trying to make a dime, the three pull out guns and violently kill a group of men before stealing their alcohol-filled truck. As far as first scenes go, it’s pretty damn good – bullets fly and people die, as Jon Bernthal’s distinctive voiceover reveals who these men are and who they will eventually become. These are our bad guys.
We’re soon in 1947 Los Angeles and from here the episode takes off. We’re introduced to the key game players, the gangsters and the LAPD, the so-called bad guys and good guys, though when it comes to crime the lines seem to be forever blurred. Never are they more blurred than with Police Detective Joe Teague (Bernthal), a former US Marine who, after receiving an invitation in his mailbox dropped off by a mystery man, meets with stand-up comic Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg), who wants Teague to act as his bodyguard for a night whilst he performs an exchange. When Teague informs his superiors of this illicit deal, he gets embroiled in an undercover mob squad led by Detective Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Captain William ‘Bill the boy scout’ Parker (Neal McDonough).
Nash’s fate is sealed when he meets with Sid Rothman (Robert Knepper) to exchange photographs for money and when the comedian winds up dead, Teague tells his superiors the exchange went south. He conveniently misses out the information that it was in fact he who killed Nash and not Rothman. The reason for this uncalled for act of violence isn’t divulged though we’re led to believe it was for love. Enter Milo Ventimiglia as Bugsy Siegel’s mob lawyer Ned Stax, who reveals that he was the mystery man who dropped the note into Teague’s mailbox, which led to the meet with Nash. When the two part ways they exchange the words ‘Semper Fi’, the marine motto, a sign that they fought in the war together. With everyone seeming to have ulterior motives and dodgy dealings, Mob City is one of those programmes where the good guys aren’t always distinguishable from the bad guys. Teague’s words resonate from the beginning: “White hats, black hats, that’s what they always wore in those old westerns we watched growing up so we could always tell the good guys from the bad guys. That works in a kid’s western. In real life it’s different.”
Like a classic western, this also feels like a classic, though one with a contemporary edge. At times it’s a sparkling tribute to those mob stories of old, where Capone and Cohen were the kings of organised crime, untouchable and indestructible to everything including the LAPD. There are moments where it verges into parody territory, whether intentional or not, but that only seems to sweeten the deal by lightening what could be a dark series. The performances are rock-solid, brilliant from the get go with Jon Bernthal and Milo Ventimiglia particular highlights. Bernthal brings that element of concealed vulnerability and deeply buried anger to the role of Teague, emotions that are at odds with his supposedly straight-laced police position. He has that worn-out look of someone who’s a veteran of war and continues to war with himself and the world, whilst Ventimiglia shines with an easy charm and air of mystery that makes you hope we’ll be seeing much more of Ned Stax.
Stealing the show as always is Prison Break’s Robert Knepper, whose acting is so effortless you instantly warm to his character, Sid, even though he’s one of the big villains. The only casting disappointment comes in the form of Jeremy Luke as Mickey Cohen, who feels all together a little weak and squishy around the sides – both literally and metaphorically. When compared with Sean Penn’s Cohen in 2013’s Gangster Squad, Luke’s portrayal is lifeless. There’s still time for him to make more of an impact but will six episodes be enough?
Mob City is expertly visualised and if there’s any criticism to be made it’s that it’s all very placed and precise, slick to the point of being a little too slick. The first episode is also lacking the strong emotional core to make us feel for the characters but hopefully that will develop as the series picks up momentum. Described as “Frank Darabont’s love letter to classic noir”, I really couldn’t have put it better myself, and what a beautiful love letter it is.