Lansky was directed and written by Eytan Rockaway (The Abandoned) and stars Harvey Keitel (The Irishman, Saturn 3), Sam Worthington (Man on a Ledge, The Hunter’s Prayer), John Magaro (Overlord, The Box), AnnaSophia Robb (Goodnight Darling, The Way Way Back), Minka Kelly (Night Hunter, Just Go with It), David Cade (Into the Ashes, Limelight) and David James Elliott (Trumbo, JAG). It’s about the infamous gangster Meyer Lansky telling his tale to a journalist while the Feds try to find out where he may or may not have stashed around $300 million.
The Plot: Mob life isn’t unknown to the cinematic world, and just about every potential story has been covered at least once if not many times. Rockaway’s Lansky doesn’t do too much differently but it’s adept at doing its job.
In 1981 Florida, ex-journalist David (Worthington) has one last card to play: write the true story of Meyer Lansky (Keitel). The two of them meet in a diner and things start strongly for David, he gets the beginning of Lansky’s life, from a brief time in Russia to his early (Magaro plays the younger Lansky) association with Ben Siegel (Cade) as his muscle to his introduction to Anne (Robb). The flashbacks are well handled but the movie may have served Lansky’s story better by allowing the older version of himself to tell these pieces to aid in cohesion.
Back in the present, David meets Maureen (Kelly) and hits it off with her and she starts to pry into his activities, but David agreed to stay silent about his book with Lansky after a threat of consequence. Adding further strain is FBI agent Rivers (Elliott), who wants to know about the money Lansky supposedly has hidden away. He eventually makes his way into the story, as does the investigation and the idea of the money, but Lansky and David’s conversations are leagues more interesting. David continues learning more about Lansky’s exploits with people like Lucky Luciano and concepts like the National Crime Syndicate and his rise to the top as the Feds get closer to David.
Lansky the movie is at its best when it focuses on Lansky the character’s interaction with David. When the movie strays from that, it’s simply less interesting than David’s own encounters with others, though crafted no worse.
The Characters: On the side of raw characterization; how the characters are given depth and personality, Lansky succeeds in creating two compelling characters with several interesting side characters that are representative of points in the chronicle at hand.
Meyer Lansky himself is consistently portrayed throughout the movie’s timeline as someone who’s inquisitive and dominating. He’s always been a numbers man. If something is off in a record book, even a small amount, he’ll find it and question why. Fittingly, if someone is acting differently than how they should, he’ll find out why and deal with them, but hardly ever gets dirty himself.
Now at the tail end of his life, he’s still his same sharp and even surer self and his perspective his decision making hasn’t changed, never once flinching at what he’s done, even when what he’s done contains a laundry list of what most would consider mistakes, from his admitted unfaithfulness to Anne and distance from his kids. That worldview is what makes him compelling.
David is almost equally well done but justifiably less detailed than the title character. His life has been falling apart from financial struggles since his last book was released, driving a wedge between him and his family. He’s desperate in every possible way, from money to image to love, or lust rather, since he falls into a fling with Maureen during his time recording Lansky’s stories. Since Maureen isn’t who she seemed, he gets paranoid and roped into something more dangerous, but since the danger isn’t coming from the expected angle, it’s a miss.
The movie tries to make a comparison between David and Lansky in their shared struggles, but it doesn’t sit right since one is a legendary gangster and the other is a troubled writer. Despite that, both characters are compulsively watchable and the famous faces in crime are entertaining too.
The Crime: With his approach in depicting the man’s life being so different and definitely more cost-efficient, Rockaway’s movie takes plenty of moments of Lansky’s life and puts them on-screen but has trouble keeping things structured.
Having David be a relay of information in the creation of his book is a creative way to not only portray the events of Lansky’s past, but a way to allow for narration from both of them without the movie’s narration comes across as an easy way to introduce characters and locations. Also, a benefit from the narration about the crimes and the past is the addition of Lansky’s own perspective about the events, another unusual but appreciated element.
Plenty of moments of Lansky’s life are portrayed, and the movie is sure to start where the man got his first taste of merging numbers with dodgy practices. When he was ten or so, he first saw a game of dice being played, put in his money and lost. He began viewing not the game, but who’s running it, and how they can rig it. His philosophy developed from that point on which led to him getting involved with Siegel for most of his life, climbing the ladder of the underworld.
It becomes a highlight reel at times since after his early life and upstart in the crime world the events showcased, like his and Siegel’s consolidation of power with Luciano, his confrontations with those who stole from him, and his time spent in Cuba during the 1940s basically owning the gambling scene with the establishment of several casinos in the country. While these facets of the life of crime are shown, with the movie’s back and forth storyline, a lot of depth is lost.
The truth isn’t cliché, but the movie comes close to lapsing into it at times. Still, hearing the stories of Meyer Lansky and seeing some of them play out through his eyes, some of them to shocking conclusions, is compelling.
The Technics: Rockaway clearly made the best movie he could with the money he had available to him. Some parts of the construction of the movie are good, while others struggle.
Musically, the movie is a solid effort, with Max Aruj (Crawl, The Ice Road) offering a score that creates classic sounds with orchestral composition complimented by synthesized elements that bridges the gap between the eras depicted. When in the past, the movie makes sure to include more traditional music too, never denying the unwritten requirement.
The look of the movie is hit or miss, production-wise and cinematographically. All of the scenes in 1981 look the part, from the fashion to the cars and technology, but the scenes farther back (that aren’t shot on location) can feel a little flimsy and shoddily lit, however, the costuming, music and mood all compensate for it.
Lansky is a good if flawed gangster movie. The two leading characters and the method Rockaway uses to convey the story are fantastic, but the plot has a forced element and there’s a lack of focus that Rockaway didn’t rectify. Still, it’s an enjoyable take on a legend.
Lansky is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital platforms from Vertical Entertainment.