Review: 'Lansky' a fascinating subject deserving of a better film

Harvey Keitel, John Magaro, Eytan Rockaway
Posted at 6:35 PM, Jun 28, 2021

Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.

Meyer Lansky is one of the most enthralling mobsters in American history, and yet, he seems to always be represented as a supporting player. Finally, Lansky is given his due.

There is a lot to like about "Lansky," and if you're a fan of Mafia movies or crime dramas, you won't be disappointed that you checked this out. But you can't help but feel that there was a better version of his story to be told on-screen.

Grade: B-

Meyer Lansky is one of the most notorious criminals of all-time, a character that somehow until now only seems to pop up in other people's movies or TV shows. In "The Godfather Part II," the character of Hyman Roth (portrayed by Lee Strasberg), was based on Lansky. James Woods' Max Bercovicz gangster in "Once Upon A Time in America" was based on Lansky. Ben Kingsley portrayed him in "Bugsy" (and was nominated for an Oscar for it) and a young Meyer Lansky was played by Patrick Dempsey in the 1991 film "Mobsters." He popped up as a recurring character in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" (played by Anatol Yusef) and was featured in TNT's "Mob City" (portrayed by Patrick Fischler).

Lansky was known as the "Mob's Accountant," and was the brains behind much of what we have come to know as organized crime in America. He's also one of the few famous mobsters to have reached old age, eventually succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 80, having retired (fled) to Cuba and never being held criminally accountable for any of his crimes. He was rumored to have been worth nearly 300 million in today's dollars upon his death, but this money was never found and his estate was valued at under $60,000.

In "Lansky," we catch up with Meyer (Harvey Keitel) near the end of his life. He's handpicked a struggling journalist, David Stone (Sam Worthington), to write his biography on the condition that Stone only include what Lansky tells him to include. Meyer regales his story to Stone in flashbacks, where we get scenes of Keitel and Worthington meeting up at a café, cut with a younger Meyer (John Magaro) in the prime of his criminal career.

In this instance, the flashback structure works. Keitel is an absolute force, and we get a strong sense that Lansky is still "connected" even though he wants the world to believe otherwise. Stone, desperate for a hit story, becomes entranced by Meyer's words and takes up an offer from a federal agent (David James Elliott) to wear a wire during his meetings with Lansky, as the Feds take one last, desperate grasp at trying to locate Lansky's supposed hidden riches. But even at age 80, Lansky is and has always been the smartest man in the room. Good luck to those trying to take him down.

Because Keitel is so powerful on-screen, the flashback sequences to his younger self aren't nearly as effective, as they tend to cover more familiar mob-movie ground. Magaro is effective if not nuanced, and the stand-out is actor David Cade as Meyer's strong-arm, literal partner-in-crime, Ben "Bugsy" Siegel. Cade is charismatic and cold, looking strikingly like a young Warren Beatty (who not so ironically portrayed Siegel in his film, "Bugsy").

The backstory in "Lansky" feels like a mobster movie paint-by-numbers, as we watch Lansky effectively work his way up the American Mafia food chain. He is the one that brought order to the criminal underworld, having began as part of a Jewish mob. He also was married and had a son born with a handicap, and all of these details don't seem fleshed out nearly as much as they should, nor do they seem cohesively tied-in to the over-arching story.

One can't help but wonder what a Martin Scorsese would have done with a "Lansky" movie to make it really stand out. But based on this film, the first thing they should do is cast Harvey Keitel...his performance alone is reason enough to seek this one out.

Grade: B-

Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama.
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes.
Rated R.

Starring: Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, John Magaro, Shane McRae, AnnaSophia Robb, Minka Kelly, David Cade, David James Elliott.

Co-Written and Directed by Eytan Rockaway ("The Abandoned").