Substance is here in spades, along with the twisted, brilliantly controlled style on which filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen made a name.
Story unspools in an unnamed Eastern city in the 1930s where dim but ambitious Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) has a problem named Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). Caspar wants approval from the city’s Irish political boss, Leo (Albert Finney), to rub out the cause of his complaint, but Leo’s not giving in. He’s fallen in love with Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who wants Bernie protected.
Leo’s cool, brainy aide-de-camp Tom (Gabriel Byrne) sees that Leo is making a big mistake, and it’s up to Tom to save him as his empire begins to crumble. The complication is that Tom also is in love with Verna, though he’s loath to admit it.
Rarely does a screen hero of Tom’s gritty dimensions come along, and Irishman Byrne brings him gracefully and profoundly to life. As portrayed by screen newcomer Harden, Verna has the verve and flintiness of a glory-days Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck.
Also outstanding is Finney as the big-hearted political fixer who usually has the mayor and the police chief seated happily across his desk. He’s as cool in a spray of bullets as he is vulnerable in affairs of the heart.
Buffs will note cameos by director Sam Raimi, with whom the Coens collaborated on his Evil Dead, and Frances McDormand, who made her indelible debut in Blood Simple.