Frank Darabont, the Oscar-nominated director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, is a strong, character-oriented storyteller with geeky affection for B-movie pop and a proven ability to convert pulp fiction (and Stephen King) into prestige-y drama. He was the perfect choice to bring The Walking Dead to television: The first six episodes of the AMC zombie apocalypse serial, produced by Darabont, blended many different tones — sensationalistic horror; survival procedural; existential rumination; character-based, relationship drama — to create an entertainment that engaged the mind and heart and also gave good head splatter. His short stint remains the benchmark of quality for the engrossing if inconsistent series, and stands as a successful example of a ”movie guy” taking advantage of the license and opportunities television now offers to make artful work that flatters his brand and the medium.
Darabont?s achievement with The Walking Dead means that his newest endeavor, Mob City (debuting Dec. 4 on TNT), comes with raised expectations. The show is being presented as a special event mini-series — six hours airing over three consecutive weeks. Once again, the writer/director tackles a genre laden with a unique set of conventions and clichés — this time: film noir, mobster subdivision — as well as its own stylistic tropes and attitude.
Walking Dead vet Jon Bernthal is hardboiled and rock solid as Joe Teague, a morally gray, dame-haunted cop in post-war Los Angeles, where the L.A.P.D. is lousy with corruption and Mickey Cohen (Don Jon?s Jeremy Luke) and Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) run the joint. As their trigger-happy associate Sid Rothman, Robert Knepper of Prison Break fame, proves once again why he?s TV?s go-to guy for psycho creeps — he?s very good at them. Simon Pegg (The World?s End) steals the first ep as a comedian scamming the Mob, a scheme that sets the entire plot of the series into motion; his scenes with Bernthal give the premiere its most impactful rat-a-tat-tat. I remain unsure about some casting choices. Burns is neither good nor bad as Bugsy, just blandly mean. Forever young Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes) plays Joe?s pal from the war and Cohen?s lawyer, and watching him smoke and drink and be all scuzzy-tough, you get the sense he?s enjoying the opportunity to play a full-fledged adult.
Mob City would probably call itself an homage to film noir, and some might agree with that. Someone else might call it a collection of film noir clichés searching for a vision, and that?s where I land. Darabont has so much fun luxuriating in the mood and trappings of the genre — fedoras and tommy guns, shadows and jazz, cigarettes and lipstick, rain-slickened streets and vintage cars — that he forgets to bring anything new to the party. The pace is slow-sax sleepy, and some of the action begs for more dynamic storytelling. The squarely staged opening sequence of the first episode — establishing the Mickey/Bugsy/Rothman rise to power — gets things off to a flat-footed start. (That said, Darabont?s preference for bodies that spurt blood when riddled with bullets — his most conspicuous ”modern” choice — feels jarring and cheap.) Things improve, but nothing ever blows you away, and you watch the first two episodes waiting for Darabont and company to capture your imagination and make the material as interesting for us as it is to them. Maybe it can get there next week. For now, Mob City, a B-movie wallow, is merely B-grade TV.