Film Review: Lansky (2021)

STUDIO: Vertical Entertainment | DIRECTOR: Eytan Rockaway | CAST: Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, AnnaSophia Robb, Minka Kelly, Shane McRae, David Cade
SPECS: R | 100 min. | Biographical crime drama

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 

We’ve had Richard Dreyfuss, Ben Kingsley and Dustin Hoffman play gangster Meyer Lansky in film projects and witnessed acting guru Lee Strasberg garner an Oscar nomination as the Lansky-like figure Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. Now it’s Harvey Keitel’s turn at bat and he does a solid job in the just-release Lansky, a movie that’s often shaky in its concept and plotting but intriguing when it sticks to the facts regarding the notorious Jewish crime boss.

You have to buy into the framing device that director/co-writer Eytan Rockaway (The Abandoned) uses here. Lansky’s nefarious experiences are recounted by accepting the premise that the secretive Lansky would be willing to spill the beans on himself and his criminal associates to an unknown, down-and-out   journalist, a fictional character named David Stone played by Sam Worthington (The Shack).

Harvey Keitel is Lansky

If you can buy into that notion, you may appreciate this true crime saga—at least until its problematical final 20 minutes. Through flashbacks and narration, we watch Lansky’s lurid life unspool beginning with his formative years, where he and childhood pal Benny “Bugsy” Siegel get into organized crime during Prohibition and vie for control of New York City mob activities. We move through his early affiliation with maniacal hoodlum “Lucky” Luciano onto his stormy personal life and marriage to Anna Lansky (AnnaSophia Robb, Soul Surfer), then his infiltration into casinos in Las Vegas and Cuba and then, finally, to his attempt to relocate to Israel and subsequent quiet final years in Miami Beach.

The film’s major issues rest with Worthington’s character, who is eventually recruited by the Feds to help track down millions in hidden Lansky money. One has to believe that Lansky is okay with the character poking around in his business and eventually letting him slide in his pursuit to help the government track down the cash. The idea simply appears far-fetched, especially in light of the violent episodes that have come previously involving Lansky and his associates’ brutal response to those who cross them.

As Lansky, Keitel turns in a quietly powerful, contemplative performance that shows how the gangster was more of a numbers guy with an expertise in money laundering and deal-making. Lansky’s Jewish roots are brought to light as well, especially in a sequence where he, Siegel and their cronies disrupt a Nazi Bund meeting in New York City prior to World War II.

Worthington is fine as the inquisitive writer—the plot machinations hurt the film, not his acting—while Shane McRae (Still Alice) chips in with an appropriately brutish Luciano and David Cade (Into the Ashes) scores as an intimidating Siegel, Lansky’s partner in Vegas.

Overall, Lansky is a decent and often fascinating gangster true-life yarn when it sticks to the actual events that made its subject known as one of the most powerful and cagy racketeers in American history.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.