A couple of goodfellas hook up in a set

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE MOB BOX -- Sony / $34.95 /

More than the underworld connects the movies in The Mob Box, due out Tuesday. Barry Levinson had a hand in producing 1991's Bugsy (which he also directed) and 1997's Donnie Brasco (which Mike Newell directed, 10 years before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

In Donnie Brasco, a solidly acted, stolidly written, real-life crime saga, Johnny Depp plays an FBI agent who goes undercover as a jewel broker. In the facetious Brit "laddie" film/gangster film Snatch (2000), Benicio del Toro plays a jewel thief.

The jewel in this Mob Box is Bugsy, which remains hard, fast, funny, original and adult. The spirited collaboration of producer-director Levinson with a pepped-up Warren Beatty (as the title character) and streaky screenwriter James Toback (Fingers), Bugsy centers on Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the romantic gangland crazy-man who in the mid-1940s built the Flamingo Hotel - the beginning of Las Vegas as a gambling and tourist destination.

Siegel, a Jewish racketeer, doesn't drip with warmth. He's a hot potato: a sometime psychopath and full-time fashion plate. Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Charles "Lucky" Luciano (the late and legendary rock promoter Bill Graham) send him on a trip to Los Angeles to check their New York-based syndicate's West Coast affiliates. He ends up falling for the movies and turning a desert town into a live-in fantasy that outstrips any sound stage.

The moviemakers draw Siegel as a volatile American dreamer and a nightmare charmer - an inveterate self-creator and unabashed narcissist. He recites tongue-twisters to improve his diction, is a stickler for proper word usage, and has a tense business confab at the Biltmore Health Club while sporting cucumber slices over his eyes and cream all over his face. He tickles the funny bone before he breaks it.

When Siegel visits old friend George Raft (Joe Mantegna) and meets an actress named Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), an air of erotic challenge suffuses the atmosphere. This is one of the few cases in film history when the lead actor and actress fall in love and don't leave the heat and chemistry off-screen. Both Beatty and Bening carry auras, and the two come together as smoldering twin stars.

The whole cast responds delightedly to their charisma, Toback's writing and Levinson's direction. The performers include Bebe Neuwirth as a gleamy-eyed aristocratic flirt, Harvey Keitel as mobster Mickey Cohen, and Elliott Gould as Harry Greenberg, a self-made sucker who squanders his criminal capital by turning stoolie. Gould brings together mixtures of befuddlement, dumbness, laziness and "heart" that have never been seen, before or since.

Special features

Donnie Brasco boasts backstage featurettes and a director's commentary, but The Mob Box's main extra, on its own disc, is The American Gangster, a fast-paced, 45-minute primer of the immigrant tensions, social catastrophes (Prohibition and Depression) and outsize personalities that gave rise to the Organization.

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BROKEN FLOWERS -- Universal / $29.98

One of 2005's highly touted independent features plays flat and precious on the small-screen, with Bill Murray taking his patented melancholy understatement to the point of monotony as a somewhat creaky Don Juan. After his current squeeze (Julie Delpy) leaves him, he goes in search of his ex-lovers (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton), hoping to find out which one sent a pink letter stating that he has a son.

Jim Jarmusch's deadpan road comedy is a bit like Jack Nicholson's old-girlfriend tour at the end of 2003's hit Something's Gotta Give - the worst part of that slick, funny movie extended here to an hour and 46 minutes. Except in this film, the gals are even screwier than the antihero.

The theme - a middle-aged man's explosion of undefined yearning - deserves more full-bodied humor. Murray shows he could have delivered it in the best extra, Broken Flowers: Start to Finish, a stylized gallop through every scene, punctuated by the star's ad libs between takes. Standing with a bunch of flowers next to Jeffrey Wright (who is uproarious as Murray's next-door neighbor and a self-styled private eye), Murray quips, "I feel as if we're waiting for a license." [MICHAEL SRAGOW]

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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