While no one will ever mistake “The Last Don” for that other Mario Puzo creation, “The Godfather,” this three-night mob opera is not without its share of passion and poignancy, as well as just the right dash of camp (some of it provided by k.d. lang, of all people, as an uptight feature director). The story of a modern-day Mafia clan in America and the fish they make men sleep with, it’s a pretty decent trash wallow, if an overlong and often preposterous one. Think “Godfather III” with an overactive thyroid.
The best thing about “Last Don”? Easy. Joe Mantegna is the very personification of smooth, slicked-back sleaze as Pippi De Lena, the trusted nephew of mob family patriarch Don Dominico Clericuzio (Danny Aiello, doing Marlon Brando minus the menace). Mantegna turns in a masterful performance as a hit man extraordinaire, born without the conscience gene. He steals the project right out from under the huge cast.
Based on Puzo’s bestseller, the miniseries purports to document the struggle by an aging don to ensure his Mafia family’s continuing significance as mob influence wanes in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
Things get started in the opener with young and pregnant Rose Marie Clericuzio (Emily Hampshire, played in later years by Kirstie Alley) begging the don for permission to marry Jimmy Santadio (Bruno Campos) of the rival Santadio clan. He agrees to let it happen, sending Pippi as the family representative. Just as the happy couple is consummating their union on their wedding night, however, Jimmy and the entire Santadio bunch is rubbed out in a hail of bullets.
In carrying out the death sentence, the assassins mysteriously dress up in black masks and tights like Ninja executioners. It seems these guys have radically changed their ways from the era of blowing you away point-blank over a plate of spaghetti with clam sauce.
So it goes in a mini where love and loyalty are pretty much indistinguishable from hate and deception. The rest of part one finds Pippi marrying a Vegas showgirl (Penelope Ann Miller), Rose Marie naming her son Dante (Rory Cochrane), Pippi getting a son named Cross (Jason Gedrick) and Cross making his “bones” by killing a lowlife who sliced up the governor’s daughter.
Part two introduces us to life in the Xanadu Hotel & Casino in Vegas, which is run by both the Clericuzios and the Santadios. Both the smooth Cross and the sociopathic Dante begin working full-time in the family business of killing. And Cross falls for glamorous movie star Athena Aquitane (Daryl Hannah).
Athena Aquitane? It sounds like some new spring water bottled in Greece. You wonder where Puzo gets these names from.
The absurdity finally catches up with scripter Joyce Eliason’s adaptation on the third night, when a plan is discussed to assassinate the president of the United States because he opposes a gambling bill.
“The Last Don” is ultimately a collection of compelling scenes coursing through a bloated, soapy sea. It’s nice to see some decidedly un-P.C. blood and violence in a high-profile project, and Mantegna puts on the equivalent of an acting clinic.
Graeme Clifford’s direction is nicely paced, if not exactly seamless, and Gordon Lonsdale’s photography gives the enterprise a sharp, foreboding look. The moody music from “Twin Peaks” alum Angelo Badalamenti and Roger Bellon adds to the effect.
Among the mitigating factors, however, are some of the performances. Gedrick never really shifts out of first gear, often looking and sounding like statuary. And Alley looks lost, like her character, in a catatonic haze.
Whether audience will be inspired to stick through six hours of a Mafia story that has no sign of Joe Pesci and lacks the imprint of either Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola is perhaps a dice roll at best.
Tech credits are all sparkling.