'Mob City' Review: An Almost Successful Attempt At Modern Film Noir
Mob City, TNT’s mini-series about 1940s mob life in Los Angeles, premieres Wednesday with two hours of dreamy Hollywood glamour and gunshots.
The six-episode series is a non-stop celebration of film noir complete with a steady voice-over narration from Jon Bernthal, who stars as Detective Joe Teague. Bernthal’s low, grainy voice perfectly lends itself to the noir tone of the series, and his morally grey character makes him an interesting protagonist for the series to focus on. The intrigue of Mob City lies in the idea that famous, real-life gangsters such as Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel and the police force that fought against them were not all that different from one another. Based off the first two episodes, “A Guy Walks Into A Bar” and “Reason to Kill a Man,” the creators of Mob City desperately want to impress the idea that no one character is good and no one character can be bad upon the viewer.
There are moments in Mob City when the series seems like a parody of itself. The elaborate 1940s sets and long-winded descriptions of the gritty times are never-ending, covered in jazz music and wrapped in old-fashioned gun slinging. Director and executive producer Frank Darabont, of Walking Dead fame, spends too much time focusing on the aesthetic of the era and not enough time on the characters and their stories. Detective Teague, for example, is introduced in the first episode as a cop who may or may not be corrupt. His silent, hard stares give nothing away, and, while that type of moral mystery is interesting in any television series or film, it can get old extremely quickly if the character never tips one way or the other. The guessing game can only continue if the audience is actually convinced to lean one way or the other, or, at least, if the audience is given a reason as to why Teague lives in the grey. To be fair, the show does hit at the reason for Teague’s shaky moral compass: love. But the object of his affections, Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos) is so underdeveloped that the romantic ploy feels like something the writers threw in to make the show appear sexy, or just to check another box off the film noir list (Love interest? Check.)
Mob City has potential, and I expect the final episodes will be fascinating, but for now, everything is just too slow. And, due to the incredible amount of important characters, the slower it is the harder it is to keep up. After a while, all the handsome men in ties start to look the same, making it impossible to keep track of the plot.
The actors in Mob City bring a lot to the show, making by-the-numbers dialogue feel almost natural. Simon Pegg’s appearance in the pilot as comedian Hecky Nash goes a long way to bringing the heavily staged 1940s LA to life, and the first episode gets a nice breath of fresh air when Milo Ventimiglia finally enters the scene in the last scene of the episode. Ventimiglia, looking dapper as ever, stars as Ned Stax, Teague’s buddy from the war who now works for Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel. Stax also exists in a moral grey area, but, unlike Teague, Stax is comfortable there and is more able to find his footing character-wise as leaning towards the bad. Edward Burns, arguably the biggest name in the cast, is very fun as the flashy Bugsy Siegel and is one hundred percent believable as a gangster. Villains are always sinfully delightful when they take pleasure in frivolous evil tasks, and Burns definitely gives off a sense of joy when up to no good.
Robert Knepper, who appears as one of Bugsy’s trusted killers, is a pro when it comes to playing twisted psychopaths. His four seasons on Prison Break as pedophile and all around crazy criminal Theodore ‘T-Bag’ Bagwell still haunts my dreams, and his unsettling presence is well used in Mob City. In such a stylized show everything can easily feel staged, and Knepper brings a much-needed threatening authenticity to the gangster violence that grounds the show whenever he appears onscreen.
Mob City premieres Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 9 p.m. on TNT and will continue as a special 3-week event.