Mob Movies Gang Up On Screen Space

Given the glut of gangster pictures on movie screens in the last year or so – “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Godfather Part III,” “Goodfellas,” “Family Business” and “The Freshman” among them – you’d think studios would have had enough mob mayhem.

Nothing of the sort. Almost a dozen new gangster films are being readied for release on American movie screens.

Disney’s Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures labels lead the studio-by-studio gangster fest. Serious treatments of the subject from these mobster mavens are “Run,” in which Patrick Dempsey falls afoul of the Mafia, and “Billy Bathgate,” which toplines Dustin Hoffman in an adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel.

Comic renditions of the subject are “Oscar,” in which Sylvester Stallone plays a gangster trying to go straight, and “True Identity,” in which British comedian Lenny Henry discovers that a Mafia don, long thought dead, is actually alive.

The Columbia Tri-Star combine is not far behind in this mobster mania. Columbia boasts a based-on-fact historical retelling of the life of “Machine Gun Kelly,” and has Jean-Claude Van Damme (in dual roles as twin brothers) going against the Chinese Mafia in “Double Impact.”

Tri-Star has crimebuster Warren Beatty assaying the life and times of Bugsy Siegel, the mobster who built Las Vegas.

Two for Fox

Fox checks in with two productions, “29th Street,” about small-time New York hoods, and “Hoffa,” about the late Teamster and his connections. It will star Jack Nicholson in the title role when it rolls under Danny DeVito’s direction. (Fox also has the mob-sounding “Dutch,” which concerns not Dutch Schultz but a nasty preteenager.)

Universal has “Mobsters” on tap. This coming-of-age story of gangsters growing up also features Patrick Dempsey, with an ensemble cast that includes Christian Slater, Richard Grieco, F. Murray Abraham and Anthony Quinn. The script was co-written by Nicholas Kazan, who is nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of “Reversal Of Fortune.”

And indie Continental Film Group has an offering, too. The company has recently begun principal photography on “Hit Man,” which stars James Belushi, Sharon Stone, Forest Whitaker and Sherilyn Fenn. (It is not the same film as “The Hitman,” a Chuck Norris-starrer for Cannon.)

Why is the marketplace so crowded?

“There are certain subjects that are just interesting, because interesting dramatic stories can be told against them,” reasons Nick Pileggi, whose book “Wiseguy” was the basis for director Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” and whose co-screen credit has brought him an Oscar nomination. “In Shakespeare’s time it was kings and queens. Now it’s gangster movies, cop movies, spy movies and maybe cowboy movies.”

According to “Mobsters'” Kazan, who rewrote from Mike Mahern’s original script and who also was a rewriter on Columbia’s upcoming “Gladiator,” the audience desire for thug theatrics is almost unquenchable, and for a reason.

“We love these guys for their ability to break the law, and go against convention and destroy their enemies with such imagination and dispatch,” Kazan observes. “But it’s not an all-encompassing fantasy. We love them for their excesses, but we’re comforted, in a sense, when they die as a result of their excesses.”

And current headlines may explain t he plethora of mob-related stories.

“Gangsters have come to the fore largely because the federal government has launched such a huge campaign against them, and so they’ve been in the news,” says Pileggi, whose next film projects are in tandem with Paul Schrader and whose next book concerns the Mafia-heavy history of the Las Vegas casino business.

“They’ve given us John Gotti… As a result, a lot of writers have been able to do pieces about this subject. In [” Goodfellas'”] case the fascinating thing is that it’s nonfiction. None of it is made up. These dead people were all real dead people. They were brothers, until they all started killing each other,” says Pileggi.

Which is, in effect, what the gangster movies may do to themselves. Several sources, Kazan among them, noted that any one of last season’s three big gangster films probably would have fared better at the boxoffice had it been alone in the marketplace. And that’s when there were only three of them.

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