Warren Beatty leads a star-studded cast in this dramatization of gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Seagal’s attempt to build a hotel in Las Vegas — essentially to found Las Vegas, in fact. Of course, calling him “Bugsy” isn’t a great idea, it tends to make him fly off the handle. A lot of things make him fly off the handle. Seagal, as portrayed by Beatty, is a loose cannon, but in many ways unpredictable. He’ll let a lot of things just roll off him, but then snap at a moment’s notice.
He tends to get caught up in ideas as well. One of his oldest friends, Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) even says that he doesn’t respect the concept of money, what interests him is the ideas that it can bring into fruition. And it’s this tendency to get caught up in the moment that drives the plot, as Bugsy is sent by his mob superiors to California to establish operations there. Once there, he finds himself smitten with singer Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), and proceeds to attempt to seduce her, despite his marriage and kids.
She’s not immediately taken with him.
Winning Virginia over isn’t the only difficulty he has out there. He immediately starts hanging out with his friend George (Joe Mantegna), despite the direct orders of his supervisors. George has become a Hollywood actor, and Bugsy’s bosses aren’t keen on the idea of having that much attention around their activities. Bugsy, however, is enthralled by Hollywood, even trying to get a screen test himself. When he needs to calm down, he repeats an enunciation exercise as a mantra.
Beyond the limelight and the womanizing, there are actual business concerns. His childhood friend Harry (Elliott Gould) has ratted out the mob, and is on the run. And the interests that Bugsy was trying to gain control of in California get fleeced by another mobster; Bugsy winds up hiring the thief, Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) to run the local operation. Then, on a drive out in the desert, inspiration strikes: The Flamingo, a grand hotel and casino where the mob can run their usual illicit activities legally. He just needs to convince them to go along with it.
More mob deals are done in chef hats than you might think.
Bugsy was released in 1991 to great critical acclaim, with several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and two Best Supporting Actor nominations. The acting nominations were definitely deserved, as everybody embodied their characters perfectly. I never felt like I was watching “Warren Beatty” or “Harvey Keitel” or anything like that. I felt like I was watching Bugsy Seagal and company. But, as to the picture itself, I have to say it left me feeling kind of underwhelmed. Part of it was that it just didn’t capture my interest as much as it should have; as a gangster film that mostly focuses on building things and dysfunctional romantic relationships, it’s not as exciting as, say, Road to Perdition, and I didn’t find the personalities as captivating as The Godfather.
And the personalities are the big problem I had with it. I could have enjoyed it more as a relationship-driven drama had it not been for the fact that I had trouble believing it, which is a serious issue for a movie based on a true story. As portrayed on the screen, I couldn’t fathom why people stuck around with Bugsy. Whatever Virginia saw in him, it wasn’t shown here. He’s self-absorbed, prone to rages, and deeply suspicious of her fidelity. At one point he shoves her brother through a window, thinking she’s cheating on him, and doesn’t apologize until the brother provides photo ID. Even then, the apologize comes in the form of a Cadillac. He buys his way into peoples’ good graces when his charm, such as it is, fails. Virginia almost walks out on him at several points, only to come back for reasons that are never quite clear. She says she loves him; we never quite see why she should.
And we don’t see why the mob trusts him. Sure, eventually they become distrustful as the costs of the Flamingo balloon from one million to three million to six million, and he sells stock above and beyond what can actually be provided. (And in reality, despite its rocky start, the Flamingo was eventually a huge success.) But why did they trust him to begin with? They knew he was a loose cannon. They knew that he was prone to getting swept up in ideas. Bugsy is shown to be downright delusional; he learns one of the regular party goers in Hollywood is an Italian Count who is friends with Mussolini, so what does he do? He starts seducing the Count’s wife, with the intention that the Contessa will get the Count to introduce him to Mussolini so he can assassinate him. While he only tells this to his close friends, it’s probably not the first time he’s had wild ideas that didn’t pan out, and it’s hard to believe the mob would put as much trust in him as they do.
There’s a lot to like in Bugsy, and it’s certainly well crafted in a lot of ways. But the positive aspects of it didn’t outweigh the negatives for me. I found the plot uninteresting, and the main character unbelievable. Given its high acclaim, this may very well just be a case where it’s just “not for me”. But since I’m the one doing the rating here, a lukewarm reception from me results in a lukewarm rating.