This refined, intelligent drama about thugs appeals considerably to the head but has little impact in the gut, which is not exactly how it should be with gangster films. Robert Benton’s screen version of Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow’s 1988 bestseller about the last act of Dutch Shultz’ life, is beautifully realized and a pleasure to watch, but its center is hard to locate.
Returning to the 1930s criminal milieu for the first time since Bonnie & Clyde, Benton has invested the picture with extensive class and storytelling smarts, and the $40 million-plus production bears no signs of the rumored troubles of its making.
Tom Stoppard’s tight, neatly arcing screenplay kicks off powerfully with Schultz (Dustin Hoffman), arguably the king of the New York underworld in 1935, taking his once-trusted top enforcer (Bruce Willis) for a nocturnal tugboat ride, tying him up and planting his feet in cement.
Observing this showdown from close range is Billy (Loren Dean), a nervy kid who (as seen in an eventful 35-minute flashback) has worked his way up from the streets of the Bronx to become one of Dutch’s valued flunkies. Dutch still may be prospering, but the Feds are moving in mercilessly.
All this is a backdrop to the personal drama that mainly concerns Billy earning a place in the gang and vowing to take care of the beautiful Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman), the dead enforcer’s former girlfriend.
Despite Dean’s alert, open performance, Billy remains an opaque witness to events that are unfolding over his head. Hoffman’s performance also is problematic. There is a stiffness that sets his impersonation apart from his best contempo characterizations. Kidman comes on strongly, showing both girlish frivolousness and steely resolve in her portrait of the opportunistic Drew.