Film Review: Gangster Land

Boxer Jack McGurn gets sucked into the O’Banion-Capone war in this threadbare gangster retread.
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Laced with garish dialogue and more over- and underacting than a summer stock production of King Lear, Gangster Land doesn’t leave anything to subtlety. One could argue that there is little call for it. After all, the subgenre of Chicago-era Prohibition flicks, from the original Scarface to Road to Perdition, has been one primarily concerned with the settling of scores and the rattle of Thompson submachine guns. But there’s a lack of subtlety and then there’s a lack of any story to hang one’s fedora on.

Starting off with some of the worst fake boxing scenes in living memory and a score brazenly filched from Ennio Morricone’s The Untouchables, the movie introduces us to Jack McGurn (Sean Faris). A heart-o’-gold tough guy who works in his parents’ store and doesn’t like the hoods who rip them off, McGurn’s real name is Vincent Gebhardi. After one fight, he explains that he changed it because the Irish were better fans than the Italians. But such loose and fast ways with ethnic loyalties are dangerous in the 1922 Chicago poorly represented by a tiny number of achingly fake backlot shots.

The Sicilian mob led by Johnny Torrio (Al Sapienza) and Al Capone (Milo Gibson) is in a tit-for-tat war with the Irish gangsters headed up by the none-too-clever Dion O’Banion (Mark Rolston). After Jack’s loose affiliation with Torrio’s bunch gets his father killed, he dumps the boxing gig and goes full-tilt gangster. Bodies topple, dancing dames squeal, the booze flows, the cops who aren’t on the take gnash their teeth in frustration, and everything builds towards the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Jack’s transformation from an honest boxer who only agrees to provide muscle for the Torrio smuggling operation to make a little cash to the feared “Machine Gun Gangster” is treated so offhandedly that it happens almost without remark. A girlfriend in the form of dancer Lulu (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is there to provide some semblance of human drama to this chiseled-cheek shadow of a character. Faris plays Jack with a permanent, sub-Affleckian smirk and not much more. Without anything to keep viewers interested in Jack, director Timothy Woodward, Jr. packs in enough secondary characters that most of this painfully low-budget affair’s finances must have gone to the pinstripe-and-hat wardrobe department. It’s mostly an embarrassment to watch. Jason Patric does a perfunctory-at-best turn as the Last Honest Detective in all of Chi-town. Peter Facinelli makes a splashy entrance as Bugs Moran, but wears out his welcome quickly with a subpar Joker-ish take on the enforcer.

Unlike most gangster yarns of this sort, Ian Patrick Williams’ script uses the era’s real history for more than just the characters’ names. O’Banion did run a flowershop. Capone had blue eyes. And Jack truly was a golf pro on the side. (He was arrested on the golf course once, but sadly nothing quite so off-kilter occurs here.) At the same time, liberties are taken. In this take, Jack and Capone are just a couple of honest bootleggers and cathouse operators who never killed nobody who didn’t have it comin’.

The slapped-on white ethnic insults and hackneyed accents (“throw” as “trow”) that all these (“dese”) guys toss around have the feel of what happens when you give gangland live-action role-players who once saw an episode of “Boardwalk Empire” a camera and a few bucks to spend on squibs and sequins. Gangster Land is amateur hour.

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