Gangsters and mobsters have inspired cinematic escapades since filmmaking became a proper career. Primarily, such stories all hit the same beats. As such, it is not the plot that sucks in viewers but the characterizations and style. Director Timothy Woodward Jr.’s Gangster Land, written by Ian Patrick Williams, is an independently produced gangster tale set in the rise of Al Capone in Chicago. It was originally titled In The Absence Of Good Men, which is an unwieldy, though less generic and more catchy name. Admittedly, it doesn’t convey what the film is about.
The Italians are in a heated territorial dispute with the Irish for the north of Chicago. George Moran (Peter Facinelli) leads the Irish while the Italians are headed by Dean O’Banion (Mark Ralston). The factions are locked in a feud to control the run of alcohol and more crime throughout Chicago. Police officers are often paid off to look the other way when these fights turn deadly.
Jack McGurn (Sean Faris) is making a name for himself in the boxing ring. Unfortunately, his life is turned upside down when his father is killed. Seeking a more steady income and answers as to who’s responsible, Jack joins the Italian mafia. Becoming a made man alongside him is Jack’s good buddy Al Capone (Milo Gibson), who O’Banion is positioning to take over. As he rises through the ranks, Jack’s morals are tested as he runs alcohol, kills people, and does all manner of unsavory activities. Keeping him grounded is Lulu (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), a dancer he falls in love with. As Capone gains more power, the heat is on, causing Jack to lose more and more of himself.
“As Capone gains more power, the heat is on, causing Jack to lose more and more of himself.”
Considering Gangster Land is an independent production, it looks incredible. Period trappings abound in detail, transporting audiences to the past with the greatest of ease. The cinematography by Pablo Diez captures it all with energy and dynamic movements. Erica D. Schwartz’s costumes look incredible and aid in generating the immersion to another time the film so aptly does.
Storywise, there are few surprises at hand. Partially, that’s because this is based on real-life events and partly because several films have covered these events before. But Williams and Woodward Jr. craft characters who are relatable and interesting. Jack’s love for Lulu rings true, as does his loyalty to the organization that has kept him afloat. Jason Patric’s Detective Reed cares for Jack, which is keenly felt and adds an emotional layer to the cops versus robbers subplot.
The cast of Gangster Land is truly stacked. The rising stars who compromise the three leads, Faris, Sigler, and Gibson, are terrific together. Faris embodies the reluctant but loyal lead with ease. Sigler does not have much to do, but she’s a sweet, calming presence. Gibson plays the power-hungry Capone without going over the top. This makes the most iconic mobster ever human in a way other portrayals have not achieved. Patric is excellent as the weary cop who wants the killings to end. As his partner, Sean Kanan, conveys the gravity of what the gangs are doing very well. Facinelli doesn’t have a huge part, but he leaves a lasting impression. Also, be on the lookout for Michael Paré in a minor but pivotal role.
Gangster Land tells a story of the mafia that is as old as time. But in defiance of the independent nature of the production, it captures 1920s Chicago with verve and immaculate detail. The cast is fantastic, creating well-rounded characters despite how often these real-life people have been seen in pop culture. If one loves gangster stories or is interested in seeing what an indie production can achieve when everyone’s on the same page, this is a must-see.
"…captures 1920s Chicago with verve and immaculate detail."