Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Tuesday, September 14 by

Where the roaring 1920s lights of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel meet with the violent crime sagas of a Scorsese classic, this what you can find in the fast-paced and explosive new gangster series “Boardwalk Empire.”

On the eve of 1920 with his pockets full of cash and liquor in a high demand due to prohibition, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (played with tough talk and weak posture by Steve Buscemi) is at the top of his game as the Treasurer over the swinging and swindling lights of Atlantic City. Thompson has everything in place to create Atlantic City as the speakeasy capital of the world but as high stakes prove he has a lot more coming this way as the infamous decade will come of age in gangster warfare, political upheaval, and a crash and burn economy.

More after the jump…

Yet that all comes about in several years time, so let’s relish in the atmosphere and the gleaming red hot allusion to infamous characters that director Martin Scorsese and “The Sopranos” writer Terence Winter paint for this series that blurs the lines between television narrative and feature films like never before.

The canvass presented here is full of Scorsese moments from long and majestic tracking shots through the gin joints, back rooms, and vaudevillian sidewalk entertainment to the freeze frames, smash cuts, and explosive moments of violence. Additional to these auteur signatures, Scorsese seems to be quite at home at being able to play with homages to his musical ragtime library and iconic screen images of the Keystone cops and Fatty Arbuckle shorts from the 20s, something that feature film Scorsese is limited to do.

While TV’s series pilots are difficult to pull all together, “Empire” has a canvass that can’t contain every character in one episode. The few characters we get to meet during the pilot besides Nucky are your standard characters in the gangster movie encyclopedia. From Nucky’s questionably loyal right hand man Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt in his best and most likable performance to date), gangster rivals Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg from A Serious Man) and a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham), abused Irish wife and possible love interest, Margret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald, the saintly angel of Trainspotting and No Country For Old Men) and FBI spooks hiding in their fedoras (Michael Shannon with his signature stiff neck and twisted grin).

The rest of the all-star character actor cast that will be coming in the following episodes are seen only in passing. For example, Michael K. Williams of “The Wire” is given only one brief look as Chalky White, a man left waiting for a long time in Nucky’s office to discuss some certain business.

If anything, this pilot episode suffers from the sense of crime movie déjà vu. The climax has your typical juxtaposition of several mob hits going on at once, which is there to set up the 12 episode season, but takes away from the combustible color of lights and flurry that has been built in motion for this epic.

All of these elements mixed together go down with a bite, and turn “Boardwalk Empire” into one series that is primed to explode on your TV this coming fall season.

Grade: A-