The decision to release 'Mobsters' on HD DVD baffles me. Universal has a huge library of fantastic titles at its disposal, and this is what they choose to put out in high-def?! A deservedly forgotten slice of early-90s marketing posing as a movie, 'Mobsters' is the kind of flick that even basic cable networks no longer bother running (you know it's sad when "USA Up All Night" refuses to play a movie).
One in a series of films made to cash in on the 'Young Guns' "craze" that briefly swept through Hollywood in the early '90s, the formula was simple -- take a group of hot young actors, stick 'em in a generic genre flick, then sit back and wait for young girls to snatch up the tickets. 'Mobsters' swaps the Old West for New York's lower east side, and puts its young studs in Italian suits instead of leather chaps, but otherwise, there's scarcely a dime's worth of difference between the two films’ intentions. Only in this case, ‘Young Guns' is still fairly entertaining, whereas 'Mobsters' is lacking in action and utterly bereft of even a hint of charm or enthusiasm.
If you can imagine Teen Beat magazine producing a movie detailing the rise of organized crime in America, then you can imagine the hilarity that is 'Mobsters.' The story traces the exploits of four close friends growing up in 1920s New York, among them savvy Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), headstrong "Bugsy" Siegel (Richard Greico), diplomatic Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor), and the de facto leader, "Lucky" Luciano (Christian Slater). Spanning twenty some years, we watch as the friends rise to power, going from minor bootlegging to eventually running the entire mob. Along the way, they tangle with members of the old guard (including embarrassed-looking Oscar winners F. Murray Abraham and Anthony Quinn), who don't take too kindly to being pushed out of the family business by a bunch of twerps in nice suits.
'Mobsters' has a lot of problems, starting with the overly convoluted script. Trying to fit five 'Godfather' movies’ worth of crime drama into only 104 minutes, 'Mobsters' simply feels overstuffed (I nearly resorted to pen and paper just to keep track of it all). Screenwriters Michael Mahern and Nicholas Kazan seem desperate to evoke vintage Coppola and Scorsese for a younger generation (an aim not entirely without merit), but they miss the point. Films like 'The Godfather' and 'GoodFellas' aren't classics because the audience cares about betrayals, double-crosses, and bloody machine gun fights, but because the filmmakers find qualities in the repugnant characters that make viewers empathize with them, and in some cases, even come to understand their morality (even if they don't agree with it). 'Mobsters' on the other hand, never sees its youthful anti-heroes as anything more than good-looking pawns in a labyrinthine plot, so if the movie doesn't care why the characters do what they do, why should we?
I’ve liked Slater and Dempsey in many productions, but in ‘Mobsters’ they never come across with the force and gravity that their characters demand. They look good, they sound good, they fit the costumes, but somehow I never believed I was looking at a young Lansky or Luciano. It doesn't help that the movie is so over-art-directed that it teeters on the brink of a camp music video (personally I kept thinking of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal"). Director Michael Karbelnikoff makes the fatal mistake of assuming young audiences want flash and style more than substance. 'Mobsters' really could have been an entertaining piece of historical pulp for the MTV set, but it needed to have faith in its own material.
By the time 'Mobsters' careens towards its overly-bloody, ludicrously violent climax, even the operatic bloodshed begins to cancel itself out. To be fair, 'Mobsters' is a good-looking movie with an attractive cast, and it does have a few moments of insight into the minds of young criminals on the verge of becoming truly despicable, inhuman monsters, but with all the needless sadism, the shallow allusions to genuine mob classics by Scorsese and Coppola, it never finds its own voice. I never thought I'd say such a thing, but 'Young Guns' this ain’t.
Although my expectations were low for 'Mobsters,’ this 1080p/VC-1 encode is actually pretty good for a 1991 flick. That's not to say it's particularly great, but it falls comfortably in the middle rung of recent Universal catalog releases.
Don't expect a pristine source print, but overall, dirt and blemishes are kept to a minimum. Grain is frequent but not excessive, though some of the darkest scenes do suffer from the fuzzies. Blacks are solid, and contrast is fairly well modulated, if not nearly as eye-popping as on new releases. Colors are a bit hit or miss -- brighter shots benefit from vivid, clean hues, but chroma noise and a lack of definition hamper low-lit scenes. Sharpness is average at best, with some edge enhancement. Wide shots in particular lack the depth and detail one expects from great high-def. Is 'Mobsters' a great transfer? Hardly. Is it watchable? Absolutely.
I checked the back of the box twice to make sure this was really a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit) mix I was listening to, since quite frankly, the film's sound design is as dull as dishwater. This is typical of a 1991 mix for a marginal, fairly low-budget movie -- all front heavy, with the occasional gimmicky discrete effect thrown in for kicks.
"Envelopment" is just about non-existent, so don't expect any rear activity aside from the slightest score bleed (or more accurately, "score echo") and a few rat-a-tat-tats whenever there’s some gunfire. Otherwise, all sound emanates from the front. Dynamic range is flat enough that nothing much stands out, with little pop or impact to even the brashest elements of the score. Dialogue reproduction is decent, but low tones tend to muddy out, and low bass response is weak. I certainly had no trouble listening to 'Mobsters,' but it's completely and utterly generic.
Nuthin' -- not even a measly trailer.
The folks at Universal must be smoking something -- they have a great library to draw from, and they release 'Mobsters' on HD DVD?! This dumb mob version of 'Young Guns' takes a then-young cast of hot actors and strands them in a silly, dull crime caper. This HD DVD is just as unmemorable, with decent video, unimpressive audio, and not a single supplement. Even for 'Mobsters' fans (all two of you), there’s not enough of an upgrade here over the standard DVD to warrant a look.