SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen Mob City – A Guy Walked Into a Bar
Mob City, which began of Fox last night, follows in the footsteps of last years Gangster Squad and the video-game L.A. Noire in taking inspiration from the LAPD’s battle to rid Los Angeles of organized crime in the 1940s. Maybe that’s why, despite a stunning neo-noir aesthetic crafted by director Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption), this feels like a hackneyed mix of thin plotting and even thinner characters, rather than a rip-roaring tale of moral depravity in the City of Angels.
Detective Joe Teague (Jon Brenthal), an LAPD officer and ex-marine, is surreptitiously hired by dead-beat comedian Hecky Nash (a cameoing Simon Pegg) to provide muscle as he attempts to blackmail Bugsy Siegel, the most powerful mobster in L.A.. Thematically this sticks close to the staples of the gangster genre, featuring widespread corruption amongst the LAPD, a plucky character who is undone by his own ambition, and of course the question of morality.
As Teague says, he “lives in a world of grey hats,” and the chief concern of this episode is finding out which side of the line he stands. At first he appears to be a good cop, accepting Nash’s offer in order to set-up a sting to catch the mobsters red-handed. Then he performs an about turn, executing Nash, taking his money, and framing the mafia for Nash’s murder. So he’s a mafia man, right? Well, he certainly stole the money on behalf of Bugsy’s men, but then he rejects their offer of becoming a mob enforcer; so I guess the best answer is that Joe Teague is out only for himself.
If this sounds like an incredibly thrilling plot, stuffed with unexpected twists and mafia chicanery, prepare to be disappointed. Though there’s massive potential in the subject matter for a dark, fast-paced story about the fight for L.A.’s soul, most of the time Mob City feels like a paint-by-numbers gangster-movie complete with a Goodfellas-style voice over and clunky 40s dialogue: “See ya Toots.”
Yes, it’s incredibly stylish, but that seems like an easy thing to achieve in this genre. All you need to create a sexy noir aesthetic are deep shadows, neon lights, and a smoked swathed jazz club where silhouetted men in trench coats and trilbies can knock back a couple of whiskeys, and you’ve got enough cool to make Don Draper look like a pencil-pushing dweeb.
Even the action, of which there is surprisingly little, is played for style rather than dramatic effect. It’s very nice to see a slow-motion shoot-out to the tune of harmonising violins, a man shot-gunned through a confessional, or an execution bathed in the orange glow of a recently ignited flare, but these scenes tell us nothing about the characters other than they aren’t very nice – which seems fairly obvious given that they’re, you know, gangsters and everything.
This lack of invention is most evident in the painfully thin characterization. Aside from the basic archetypes of a reticent war veteran, a down-on-his-luck comedian, and a righteous cop we learn very little about these characters – other than they like to spout obfuscated dialogue about ‘a thing’ or ‘some business’ in a gravely tone that makes it clear that they’re tough guys.
It’s a fatal flaw because without a likeable character it’s important to have authenticity to keep the audience interested. Maybe I’m being too harsh, and there’s still plenty of time to develop the characters above hackneyed stereotypes. But if Mob City is going to become the fast-paced tale of moral ambiguity it has the potential to be, it needs to start developing its characters rather than hoping to get by on its admittedly stunning looks.
Click here to watch the trailer for Mob City