If asked, the vast majority of movie lovers would name The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), and GoodFellas (1990) as the quintessential mafia movies. Sure, there are dozens of others, but that mob triumvirate has ruled the roost for many years. It’s doubtful writer-director Eytan Rockaway ever gave one moment of thought that his second feature, written from a story by his father, author Robert Rockaway, might join the ranks of those top three, but that doesn’t prevent Lansky from being a quite interesting tale based on true events.
Sam Worthington (Avatar, 2009) stars as David Stone, a writer who had some success a few years back with his Kennedy biography. Since then, he’s struggled in both his personal and professional life. In 1981, when an elderly Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel) contacts him to write the true Lansky story, David jumps at the opportunity, seeing it as a solution to his many problems. The two men meet at a Miami diner that Lansky frequents. These diner meetings form the structure of the story, and director Rockaway uses flashbacks to the 1940s to “show” us what Lansky is telling his biographer from the booth.
John Magaro plays the younger Lansky, a man who is remarkably good with numbers and calm, yet forceful, in his demeanor. Lansky has partnered with Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade), who provides some muscle and flamboyance that Lansky lacks. We see the development of their business, and how Lansky’s shrewd business acumen leads to a connection with Lucky Luciano, as well as providing the government with intelligence during the war. Lansky’s story to David glosses over the bootlegging and other revenue streams to concentrate on gaming, which of course, is now legal in many states.
The supporting cast includes Minka Kelly as David’s fling at the motel, AnnaSophia Robb as Lansky’s wife Anne, Shane McRae as Lucky Luciano, and David James Elliott as the FBI Agent obsessed with solving the long-dead Lansky case and locating the $350 million supposedly hidden away. As you might expect, the story bounces from Miami to New York City to Cuba (a stunning Colonial Hotel in Havana) to Vegas to Geneva and even Israel, where Lansky attempted, unsuccessfully, to live out his life.
Lansky’s biggest impact was facilitating the connection between the Italian, Irish, and Jewish mafias at a time when so such bond existed. We twice hear him answer, “I have no knowledge on the subject” when questioned about organized crime. On his death in 1983, Lansky had no convictions – all charges had been dropped. A doctor’s diagnosis of terminal lung cancer led him to reach out to an author so that his story could be told. We don’t learn much about “Murder, Inc.” but we do understand Lansky’s commitment to “control the game.” Rockaway has delivered an intriguing profile of an enigma from inside the mafia…and screen vet Keitel makes it all believable.