Sony // 1991 // 149 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // January 2nd, 2007
He was the mob's biggest hit.
Bugsy was a film that seemed to creep up on everyone in 1991, receiving a slew of Oscar nominations, with the recognized cast and crew losing out to such films as City Slickers and Silence of the Lambs. It was another grand film starring Warren Beatty that received a bunch of praise and this time, a least, very little awards. So in the 15 years since the film was released, another 13 minutes have been added on to the film. Is a double-dip in order?
From a script by James Toback (When Will I Be Loved) and directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), Bugsy chronicles the story of Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty, Reds, Bulworth), a man who worked as a trusty associate and cold-blooded assassin to gangsters Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast, House of Sand and Fog) and Charlie Luciano (rock concert promoter Bill Graham, who produced the film). Bugsy hates being called just that ("it's a colloquialism"), and prefers to be called by his given name, Ben. So Ben is dispatched to Los Angeles to tend to some business out there, but quickly develops roots out West, with the help of his childhood friend, actor George Raft (Joe Mantegna, Searching for Bobby Fischer).
Along the way, Bugsy meets and falls head over heels for Virginia Hill (Annette Bening, The Grifters), who is an actress with the Warner Brothers studio. Virginia eventually connects with Ben, and the two live together in Los Angeles, even while Bugsy's wife is still in New York with their two daughters. On a trip with Bugsy and his associate Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs), she strands the two men in the middle of the desert. It is in that desert that Bugsy conceives the idea for the bright lights and large casinos of Las Vegas, and will do anything to see that dream realized.
Sure, the fun part about watching Bugsy is the interplay between Beatty and Bening, considering how involved they became since the film and to this day, and we'll get to that in a second. But there's a scene early on that crystallizes the essence of Bugsy Siegel's presence in Los Angeles and in the film itself. For those who haven't seen it, it's when Bugsy and George are driving in Beverly Hills, and they go by the house of opera singer Lawrence Tibbett (Joe Baker, Dumb and Dumber). He stops and gains entry to the house, and then he displays the emotions that we'll see in one manifestation or another for the rest of the film. He shows eternal gratitude for the night in New York when Tibbett's singing thoroughly entertained Siegel and his family. He takes great umbrage to the name Bugsy, and explains in extraordinary detail why. He is extremely generous and courteous to Tibbett, even as he buys Tibbett's house on the spot, giving him almost twice what Tibbett originally paid for it. The swings in mood are so varied that the comfortable and cushy west coast residents haven't seen anything like it before.
Soon though, Bugsy's edge seems to vanish, as if he almost is listening to his press reports in near Gotti-like fashion. This becomes more and more prevalent as his relationship with Virginia develops. At first, I thought Beatty fell in love with Bening because of how she looked in The Grifters, primarily because I'm a superficial jerk, but Bening's work in the Stephen Frears film was top notch, and she really brings it here. Of all the female leads that have played opposite Beatty through the years, I'd say that she may be the strongest and most clever one that I've seen. She cuts through the "strong like bull" id that Siegel displays, and knows when to cut to the quick of him. In a key scene when Bugsy sees Harry Greenberg (Elliott Gould, Ocean's Eleven) for the first time in a while, Bugsy asks Virginia to show a little bit of restraint in her inquisitiveness. She presses the issue, and he assuages. However when the ante is upped, she sees a different side of him, one that realizes he's too far gone in the world he's living in, and he has a good idea that it may come to a tragic end.
Above all the other things that make Bugsy appealing, the most fun has to be the words, the beautiful words that James Toback spun together (and I'm sure were revised on set by him, Levinson and Beatty). To put it in context, where a similar film with similar dialogue released around the same time (Miller's Crossing) was fun, the words carried the story rather convincingly, the dialogue in Bugsy is fun, but it serves more as a window into the nature of each character. Whether it's Bernie Birnbaum or Meyer Lansky, the characters are fun in their own ways, and, having never seen this film before, I'm wondering how it got so jobbed at the Oscars. I mean, come on, Ennio Morricone worked on the score for Pete's sake!
As opposed to the other edition, which had little, if anything, in the way of extras, this one has a little more, but the big one is "The Road to Damascus: The Reinvention of Bugsy Siegel." This is basically a 90-minute roundtable discussion with Toback, Levinson and Beatty, as they discuss various aspects of the film. Toback and Levinson have some funny stories to tell about the production of the film, both before and during, and Beatty has some interesting things to say as well, and the requisite time is spent discussing how he first met and worked with Bening. Beatty's process on set is discussed in great detail also, and it's even somewhat supported by some on-set footage with the gang in action. In addition, Bening and Kingsley discuss the film, the characters they play and the people at the above mentioned roundtable. Kingsley has a pretty good (and logical) story about reading for the role and awaiting a decision right then and there, which is cool. Overall, I'd say that this discussion makes up for the lack of any commentary for the film and is an excellent supplement to the film itself. The other supplements are quick and can be easily missed, including a couple of deleted scenes, and the footage of Siegel's fictional screen test that Beatty was watching during the film.
Ironically, the thing that hindered me from completely enjoying Bugsy was the person who carried the role throughout the film. There's a scene early on in the film where Bugsy confronts a man who stole from his old mob bosses, and Beatty is so over-the-top abusive in ordering the man around that it's almost pathetic to see him try to do it. In another film with another actor, it would be far more chilling and convincing, but here, it borders on comical. Don't get me wrong, Beatty made great strides in the film as he got more involved, but it's still a sore spot for me.
If you loved Bugsy, you should take heart in knowing that this is as good a treatment as this film will get on digital video. The second disc feature is a pleasure to watch, and the story and dialogue are just as enjoyable. This is a definite recommendation to re-explore, or view for the first time as this justice has.
Bugsy, excuse me, Benjamin Siegel, is exonerated and free to return to work in his completely legitimate business venture.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
Running Time: 149 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "The Road to Damascus: The Reinvention of Bugsy Siegel" feature-length documentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Bugsy Siegel's Screen Test Footage
* Wikipedia: Bugsy Siegel