As if four hours of May Mafia Madness from CBS’ “The Last Don II” last weekend somehow weren’t enough, NBC rolls out another 240 minutes of cosa nostra that isn’t five minutes old before the lead character actually says, “I made him an offer he can’t refuse.” It’s a sure tipoff that “Witness to the Mob” will pummel us with every mob cliche in existence along with a crash course in mobspeak — just in case we weren’t already fluent after absorbing 16,000 previous hours of gangland-themed entertainment.
Just what is it with this continuing Mafia obsession, anyway? Have we not had our fill of sociopathic, semi-literate extortionists and assassins at this point? Evidently, co-executive producer Robert De Niro thinks not.
This mini fervently believes that it’s adding a new twist to the mob mix by focusing its attention on a rat, Sammy (The Bull) Gravano, the turncoat whose testimony landed the notorious New York mob kingpin John Gotti in the slammer.
But even if you buy into the dubious notion that it’s wise to center a two-night project around an unctuous snitch like Gravano, “Witness to the Mob” scotches any possible hopes for accuracy with the following disclaimer: “Certain events in this film that are based on fact are interpretive, certain characters are composites or have been fictionalized, and some names and locations have been changed.”
No sense in letting any of that pesky authenticity get in the way.
“NYPD Blue” good guy Nicholas Turturro goes against type here in playing Gravano, turning in a performance that’s serviceable but one-note. He’s in virtually every scene as both star and narrator, depicting the Bull as a tightly-wound jerk who rails on about loyalty but screws everybody in the end. He’s also got the personality of a lug-nut.
Consequently, Stanley Weiser’s stereotype-rich script leaves us wanting to kill Gravano ourselves rather than spend four hours watching him operate. As Gotti, Tom Sizemore is more effective, successfully lending the sleazoid who engineered the 1985 murder of mob boss Paul Castellano (nice work from Abe Vigoda) an outsized charisma.
As we see Gravano rising through the mob family ranks in part one and then rescuing his behind by ratting on Gotti in night two, helmer Thaddeus O’Sullivan adroitly lays out the scenario with loads of the requisite Mafia staples like blood-brother ceremonies, stern family meetings, threats and treachery (long a favorite).
Yet try though O’Sullivan might, he’s done in by the watered-down Scorsese material he’s forced to work with. Did Gravano really walk into a bar and tell the owner, “Okay, we’re running things here now. What’s in it for you is that you get to live”? What ever happened to the concept of a 30% cut in return for protection? Dramatic license has suddenly rendered the simple financial squeeze passe.
Then again, “Witness to the Mob” clearly doesn’t place a high priority on presenting the way things really went down. The filmmakers are more interested in spouting lines like, “Without trust, you can’t have betrayal” and showing America just how schooled they are in communicating the Mafia way (lots of “d’ese” and “dose,” numerous references to the breaking of legs, plenty of discussion about “paying him a visit”).
It all winds up feeling pretty contrived and achingly repetitive, lending fuel to the sentiment that it’s time for network TV to put the mob mini to sleep alongside the fishes. Tech credits are superior.