Rob the Mob

The future ain’t what it used to be

robmobRaymond De Felitta’s Rob the Mob fictionalizes the early-’90s Bonnie/Clyde tale of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva, two ex-cons who accidentally contributed to the apprehension of twenty-plus members of various New York City crime families after burglarizing Italian social clubs.  In a film, an audience has to be able to at least sympathize with the protagonists (read: understand why they do what they do, not necessarily root for them), so there’s plenty of highfalutin contrivance as far as Tommy and Rosie’s motivations go.  But at heart, it’s a Non-Mob movie and a love story, and the fact is, no audience wants to spend time with criminals who remind us of real criminals.

Tommy (Michael Pitt) serves an eighteen-month sentence after robbing a flower shop.  Trying to go straight, his girlfriend, Rosie (Nina Arianda) gets a job at a debt collection agency, probably one of the only businesses hiring in NYC in ’91, and eventually gets Tommy a job there too.  But Tommy is more interested in the trial of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, the notorious Mafia hit man whose testimony moved federal crosshairs towards Gambino-family boss John Gotti.  When the couple begin receiving paychecks for fifty dollars, they realize a “plan B” is in order.  Tommy procures an Uzi, and decides to stop robbing small businesses and instead go for Italian social clubs, which consist of “old guys playing cards,” and where weapons are not allowed.  He learns from Gravano’s trial which clubs are Mob-run.  When Rosie, the pragmatic one, suggests that this might not be a great idea, Tommy cites his father’s abuse at the hands of the Mob as further reason to brutalize them (it’s an unnecessary addition whose purpose is to make sure the audience thinks of Tommy and Rosie as good guys, and it brings back sad memories of Oliver Stone’s unforgivable revisions to Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers script).

The narrative stays with Tommy and Rosie until they rob their first club, and then, as it must, the scope gets wider.  We meet Big Al Fiorello (Andy Garcia), a fictional, composite mafioso on whom the feds are keeping a close eye.  He still technically runs things, but he spends most of his time with his grandson, playing games and sharing the secrets of cooking rice balls.  Oddly enough, Al is the gentlest, most morally sound character in the film, and when he reveals the circumstances of how he ended up a mobster in the first place, we really don’t want the feds (played by Samira Wiley and Frank Whaley) to catch him.  The third piece of perspective goes to Jerry Cardozo (Ray Romano), a journalist who has covered the Mob for thirty years.  He becomes fascinated with Tommy and Rosie, going so far as to interview them about their Robin-Hood-ism, and serves as a conduit to how crooked the feds really are – he even proclaims to a federal agent, “You guys are worse than [the Mob]!”  Yes, screenwriters, we get it already.

Long story short, Al’s hand is forced due to “The List,” a MacGuffin inexplicably entrusted to the aging Joey D (Burt Young), which is taken by Tommy and Rosie when they rob the Waikiki Club.  Al puts out a hit on the couple, who seem to be the only ones who do not realize how serious this is.  Count how many times someone asks them, “You know what’s gonna happen, right?”  By the end, for all their belligerence, they really haven’t figured it out.

The First Rule of Non-Mob Movies (i.e. movies that aren’t about the Mob per se, but feature characters who get involved with gangsters) is that they must become Mob movies halfway through, for the simple reason that filmmakers cannot resist making a Mob movie when they have a chance to.  A prime example is last year’s The Iceman, about Richard Kuklinski.  As soon as he gets involved with the Mob, Ray Liotta’s mob boss character suddenly gets his own scenes and conflicts that have nothing to do with the main character or storyline, and serve only to add more shopworn “gangster scenes” to the pile.  Rob the Mob follows the same rule, but it’s handled more responsibly, and Andy Garcia’s character is someone we can genuinely understand and even get behind.  This way, there are no “bad guys” in the movie, just polarized characters who cannot possibly all win (though to be fair, Big Al’s henchmen are all typical mooks, one of whom, played by Michael Rispoli, can’t even understand why Al would want to spare him the task of murdering someone).

Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda are a golden duo, and both manage to play the characters as honest-to-goodness lowlives with enormous aspirations and one very bad idea about how to achieve them.  They could have easily been depicted as misunderstood Robin-Hoods, and even with the creative licenses the film takes, it never gets too precious about anything but their for-better-or-for-worse love for one another (in fact, whenever anyone says something serious, piano music plays).  As you’d expect, the film contains plenty of nods to earlier Mob movies, and a surprising amount of subtle Quentin Tarantino references (think True Romance).  Romano’s character is relatively flat and straightforward, more a plot device than a character, but he never takes more than his fair share of screen time.  Garcia’s turn as the goodhearted mafia don is wonderful, and my only regret about the casting is that Pitt and Arianda never share a scene with Garcia (which makes sense story-wise, but is still a bit sad in retrospect).  Unfortunately, the film does perpetuate the popular depiction of Italians as pasta-slurping goombas and greasy wiseguys who know how to do three things: cook, play cards, and talk about whacking people.  Two gangsters write messages to each other in tomato sauce.  Garcia at one point declares, “There’s no Sunday without cavatelli and braciole!”  Is the idea that most people don’t know what that means, and will just think it sounds obscure and authoritative?  Because those of Italian descent (myself included) groaned a little.

Hats off to Rob the Mob for doing a different Mob movie.  One that cares more about the non-mobsters, involves no real violent imagery, and doesn’t festoon itself with profound ideas.  And, y’know, for reminding us how much sense Yogi actually made sometimes.

Rob the Mob (2014) written by Jonathan Fernandez; directed by Raymond De Felitta; starring Michael Pitt, Nina Arianda, Andy Garcia, and Ray Romano. 

 

 

 

The Iceman

Cool? Daddy-O, we are fuh-rozen

Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder“It’s bad luck to toast with water,” says Deborah (Winona Ryder) as she concludes a promising first date with Richard Kuklinski (the incomparable Michael Shannon), who states that he does not believe in luck, then goes through with the toast.  As the opening few seconds of the film shamelessly give away, Kuklinski does not go on to have the best of luck.

The Iceman follows the more or less true-to-life story of Kuklinski’s exploits as a contract killer in the employ of the Gambino crime family, namely Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta, in yet another gangster role), and more interestingly, his attempt to maintain a wholesome family life in spite of his profession (not to mention the fact that his wife and two daughters have no idea what he does for a living).  After he’s hired by DeMeo for some high profile hits, he sets some ground rules for himself: he does not kill women or children, and has an especially vicious aversion to killing female children (due to the genders and ages of his own kids), to the point that he seemingly cannot control himself if he sees someone go after a girl.

DeMeo temporarily “fires” Kuklinski when mob infighting complicates things, leading the latter to partner up with Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), an obnoxious ice-cream-truck-driving killer also in the former employ of DeMeo.  The partnership is strained due to the differing methods of the two killers, but the audience cannot be expected to care about that – we side with Kuklinski because of Shannon’s warm portrayal of him and the character’s insistence on leaving innocent girls out of his reticule.  Freezy could care less.  The two begin the practice of dismembering their victims and freezing the body parts (hence Kuklinski’s moniker).  In the meantime, Deborah and the girls perceive their husband/father’s latest successes as “job promotions,” which isn’t a total lie, but would I tell my family if I began killing for money?  Everyone has a different threshold when it comes to lying, but it’s almost unbelievable that such a steadfast family man could be such a different person when he’s “working.”  Many cases state that the real-life Kuklinski abused his family, which one might assume, but none of that is touched on here.  Shannon portrays the Iceman as a soft-hearted father and devoted husband who has no problem disposing of bad people in order to support his loved ones.

Shannon’s adept performance doesn’t stop director Ariel Vromen from deploying the time-honored trope of rendering a character sympathetic simply by introducing characters who are far worse (though he doesn’t need to here).  Mob boss Leo Marks (Robert Davi) and Evans’ Mr. Freezy are just about the nastiest characters to populate a screen this year.  Evans’ turn from Captain America to an evil hick is an incredible surprise, and Davi plays one of those “untouchable” mafia bosses who realizes he’s just as human (read: killable) as anyone else far too late.  James Franco even appears as a target Kuklinski claimed (in real life) that he regretted killing, simply for the fact that he allowed the man to pray for God to save him before shooting him anyway.

The film’s biggest misstep is that Vromen just can’t resist the temptation to make his own mob movie alongside the movie about Kuklinski – DeMeo becomes something of a tritagonist, leading his own misplaced scenes wherein he must decide if protecting Josh Rosenthal, an employee he considers a son (based on the real-life Chris Rosenberg and played by the inexplicably-cast David Schwimmer) is worth a major falling out with powerful criminal colleagues.  The scenes would have been fine in another movie –  Liotta’s millionth role as a mob boss stock character, as good as he is, is exhausted.  None of it goes anywhere, because neither Kuklinski nor Deborah have anything to do with him after the film’s two-thirds mark.

The other gear-grinder is the director’s refusal to take responsibility for the story’s content once the film reaches its end.  He so ardently aligns with the very humanely-depicted Kuklinski, but then throws him to the wolves once he’s captured and ends the film with a few lines of onscreen text: Kuklinski, these titles tell us, received a life sentence, got tossed in the cell block where his child-murdering brother also lived, and never saw his family again.  This is as if to say, “Hey, family man or not, crime is crime.”  It’s sharply dismissive, and the mostly-great film that comes before it deserves better.  Don’t leave us to interpret story content; maintain a narrative trajectory.

As with most of Shannon’s films, he carries the whole package on his shoulders, and Winona Ryder matches him every time she’s allowed to try.  These bits are what I hope viewers will recognize this film for.  I doubt anyone was begging for a movie about Kuklinski, but as Shannon’s name skirts house-holdedness, may plenty of aficionados backlog it.

The Iceman (2013); written by Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land; directed by Ariel Vromen; starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, and Ray Liotta.