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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Movie business hitmen rule the roost: Why is Hollywood still married to the mob?

September 14, 2010 |  1:14 pm

Martin_scorsese For the over-60 crowd, making gangster movies is like Viagra. It just keeps the creative juices flowing. The younger generation of moviegoers has only the spottiest of interest in mob stories, since the last actual gangster to even remotely capture the public imagination was John Gotti back in the 1980s when he was bumping off rivals left and right. But Hollywood seems to have a never-ending love affair with gangster tales, judging from the latest deal-making news.

According to Variety, Warners has bought a new script, "Cicero," which chronicles Al Capone's meteoric rise from the slums of Brooklyn to the pinnacle of the criminal underworld in Depression-era Chicago. The script, which has former Paramount chief John Lesher attached as a producer, is said to be a throwback to the Warners gangster films of the '30s. Meanwhile, Deadline's Mike Fleming has a post saying that Al Pacino and Joe Pesci are "circling" a mob drama called "The Irishman" about hitman Frank (The Irishman) Sheeran that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are developing at Paramount.

They're simply joining the crowd, since Clint Eastwood is moving ahead with "Hoover," which is sure to spend considerable time dramatizing FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover's epic showdowns with the leading criminals of his era. And HBO debut's "Boardwalk Empire" this Sunday, which judging from the pilot--directed by Scorsese--will give ample screen time to the most notorious gangsters of early Prohibition. One of the great sequences in the pilot shows the top mobsters of 1920 (including the young Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein) having a business meeting in Atlantic City while their lowly chauffeurs stand outside in the cold, trading gossip and smoking cigarettes. When the bosses walk back to their cars, the baby-faced drivers finally introduce themselves to each other, which is how we learn that one of them is, lo and behold, the young Al Capone.

For me, the best part of these announcements is that if these films get made, it would bring some dazzlingly great writing to the big screen. "Cicero" was penned by Walon Green, who makes his living working on various "Law &  Order" series today but is best known to us movie nuts as the man who wrote "The Wild Bunch," not to mention a host of other cool '70s and '80s films like "The Brinks Job," "Sorcerer" and "The Border." And "The Irishman" comes from a script by Steve Zaillian, who has a wonderful knack for capturing the social complexities of gangland life, having written both "American Gangster" for Ridley Scott and "Gangs of New York" for Scorsese.

Nonetheless, if I were a studio boss, I'm not sure I could make the case for embracing another big-budget gangster film, especially one set in the past, since young audiences seem to have little identification with old-school gangsters. Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" had Johnny Depp on board playing John Dillinger but was a box-office disappointment. On the other hand, Scorsese's "The Departed" did catch a big wave, winning the Oscar for best picture and doing sizable business as well. Still, I suspect that gangster movies may soon go the way of westerns and private-eye movies as examples of movie genres that rarely tap into the main vein of popular culture.

On the other hand, you can make the argument that if you wanted to make a gangster movie, now is the perfect time, since gangster sagas are at their most popular during times of economic duress. When people are angry and unsettled, they are especially eager to see gangsters at work, since they are our ultimate fantasy figures, always finding a way to get what they want no matter who is standing in their way. Gangsters never waste time standing in the unemployment line--they always find ways to score plenty of ready cash. So if the old masters like Scorsese and Eastwood, not to mention great veteran writers like Green and Zaillian, want to keep the gangster flame burning, I have no complaints. I'll take a story about the exploits of a brash, brutish gangster over all of the soft-hearted, misunderstood Spider-Man-style superheroes every time.   

Photo: Martin Scorsese filming the pilot episode from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." Credit: Abbot Genser / HBO