This article contains spoilers.
Over half a century since its heyday film noir endures as a source of both earnest tribute and knowing parody. Perhaps the most convincing reason for this is its striking visual signature; the shadows, the menacing urban environment and the suit-hat-gun combination of its male principals. The strength of these images means that It’s very easy to produce an ‘idea’ of noir, a general impression of it that encompasses all of these elements while missing the central ingredient of moral uncertainty and outright cynical worldview that made it work as a narrative artform.
Unfortunately, Mob City, which has been given a rushed release in the pre-Christmas doldrums, offers quite a lot of the former but very little of the latter. It’s a beautiful looking piece of television that suffers from a hollow emotional centre.
It’s certainly interested in the idea of moral ambiguity, its anti-hero, LAPD detective and former Marine Joe Teague offers a cliché-packed voiceover that explains that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, or as he puts it, ‘white hats and black hats’, while a handful of ‘grey hats’, (in which group he includes himself) walk the narrow ethical strip that divides them. It’s a game attempt at making a pithy summary of the show’s bleak moral universe but it’s so reductive as to almost be laughable. White, black or grey, it reduces the environment once again to little more than suits and hats and guns.
There are a lot of guns. Comparisons with Boardwalk Empire feel a little unfair, but given that Mob City opens with two real-life figures who have also appeared in the HBO drama, it’s impossible not to. It does the new show no favours at all. Boardwalk examines the response of the criminal fraternity to the new opportunity provided by Prohibition. It’s violent, sure, but it’s also considered. We spend a lengthy period of time in learning the reasons for the violence. In Mob City, the violence appears as a wall of machine gun fire, the camera lingering on the ballistics and the bloodshed. It’s violence as money-shot, there simply for its own sake.
Like Boardwalk, Mob City is based on a non-fiction book. John Buntin’s LA Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City is a work of history that reads like a curious dual biography. It tells the real story of William H. Parker and Mickey Cohen, cop and gangster, or white hat and black hat respectively and their parallel lives in the LA of the mid-twentieth century. In describing how the two men rose to the tops of their chosen trees and came into inevitable conflict with one another. Buntin expands his focus to take in the changing fortunes of LA and its inhabitants and the way that it reacted to Prohibition, the Second World War, demographic change and the impact of technology. It’s a great story, rich and expansive, which is why it’s such a shame that Mob City condenses it so heavily.
In adapting the book, showrunner Frank Darabont (formerly of The Walking Dead) has added considerable fictional elements, including Detective Teague and mob-connected comedian Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg). This all makes clear narrative sense and gives Darabont room for manoeuvre whenever he needs it. The trouble is that in picking and choosing which parts of Buntin’s book to adapt, he’s missed out on some rich items of detail and loses rather a lot of what made LA Noir so interesting.
Here’s a case in point. An early scene involves a tense rendezvous at an LA oilfield. Buntin’s book describes how the oilfields were the reason for LA’s very existence as men came from all over America to seek their fortune. It’s an item of genuine historical detail that doubles as a neat metaphor: LA as a magnet that drew men in to get both rich and dirty. In the show, the oilfield simply provides a moody and plot-assistingly helpful location for a dangerous scene. (The deadliness of the location is outlined for the viewer in excruciatingly expositional detail). This is the problem writ large: the book makes Los Angeles into a character; the show just turns it into little more than a beautiful backdrop. It’s sometimes considered poor form for a critic to review the show they wanted to see rather than the one that they’ve been presented with, but given that Mob City is presented as an explicit adaptation of Buntin’s book, it’s reasonable to point out where it falls short.
The second episode is a clear improvement on the first. It may be stylised, but it works well within that. As Teague, Jon Bernthal has a significant physical presence and with his pugilist’s face totally looks the part as a burned out veteran who survived Guadalcanal only to find an almost as bloodthirsty war on the streets of LA. He’d be better off with dialogue that wasn’t quite so hard boiled and with fewer lines like ‘just watch for my signal. Don’t worry about my ass’.
Neal McDonough, playing buttoned-down cop Bill ‘The Boy Scout’ Parker also carries his character well, though is given less to do. Parker is one of the most fascinating characters in American law enforcement (as well as providing one-time LA cop Gene Rodenberry with the inspiration for Spock), and while his relegation to side character is narratively just, it means that we’re given less time among the white hats when compared to the black and the grey.
Of the black, Ed Burns and Jeremy Luke as Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen are a little too mobster-by numbers and the show a little too keen to dwell on them, costing the narrative some of its balance, The standout is the always excellent Robert Knepper who brings a lizard-like quality to Sid Rothman, a man who found a way to make a good living from his sociopathic tendencies. With few checks on his murderous impulses, Rothman ironically offers the show’s best insights into the emotional conditions of any of its main characters. Everyone else feels too hollow, too repressed and too empty of interest.
Mekia Cox as Anya, the bartender is also a little by-the-numbers, riffing off Teague’s leaden bar chat with a strangely sexless ready wit, while Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos) has the most noir-ish name of all time for a reason. She’s a perfect distillation of every femme fatale you ever saw.
As such, Fontaine personifies the show. It’s a collection of well-observed tropes from a hundred noir dramas packaged up into a competent but unsatisfying whole. There’s no denying that Mob City looks good. Really good. In parts, it resembles the Mr. Sandman sequence from Back to the Future, giving us a tour of mid-century LA with all its shine still intact. Unfortunately, with so little else going for it, it just comes over a little bit like a film noir theme park.
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