With all the advance publicity about "Billy Bathgate" being awash in production problems, along with battles between director Robert Benton and star Dustin Hoffman (despite their having worked together previously on the Oscar-winning "Kramer vs. Kramer"), one could expect the film to be a disaster of the first order.
"Billy Bathgate" is no disaster, but it's also not the major gangster film everyone obviously had hopes for. There is none of the power of "GoodFellas" — which the storyline resembles — and none of the depth of the "Godfather" films.
But "Billy Bathgate" still manages to be an entertaining diversion, bolstered by excellent performances, remarkable attention to period detail and an evocative sense of time and place.
Under the opening credits, mob boss Dutch Schultz (Hoffman) escorts a double-crossing associate, Bo Weinberg (Willis), to the Chicago docks. There, Bo's feet are set in cement, and Dutch expresses his disappointment at Bo's disloyalty.
Later Dutch spots young Billy (Loren Dean) out a porthole and invites him in. As Dutch takes Bo's girlfriend Drew (Nicole Kidman) down below, Bo extracts a promise from Billy to protect her.
The film then goes into flashbacks for a short time as we see how Billy came to be a gofer. In a sequence that briefly resembles an old Warner Bros. gangster film with the Dead End Kids, Billy uses his juggling ability to get Dutch's attention — and a wad of dough. It isn't long before Billy has wormed his way into the gang, as an apprentice if not a full-fledged member.
Before long, Billy sees evidence that Dutch has lost it, that he's a big-time gangster on the decline, and that his petulance and explosive temper are self-destructive. But he doesn't fully understand it all.
Eventually, a budding romance begins between Billy and Drew, though it seems apparent that she is too flighty to really care deeply for him — or anyone else for that matter. And the danger escalates.
"Billy Bathgate" is filled with interesting characters: Otto Berman (Steven Hill), Dutch's chief aide, who feels some paternal responsibility for Billy; hitman Irving (Steve Buscemi, memorable as the bellboy in "Barton Fink"), who at first is an idol, then a nemesis of Billy's; and a bevy of smaller roles filled by seasoned character actors.
The lead roles are all well-handled, with newcomer Dean making Billy an appealing youth, whose clean-scrubbed innocence provides an odd counterpoint to his yearning to be a mobster. Hoffman is, as you might expect, excellent, making Dutch a hotbed of contradictions. Kidman, best-known for "Dead Calm" and "Days of Thunder," is enchanting, yet hard-edged as Drew. And Willis again demonstrates that with the right character, script and director, he can deliver a solid performance.
This is an ambitious turn for director Robert Benton, whose work is generally more intimate — "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart," "The Late Show." And it is the intimate scenes in "Billy Bathgate" that work best, especially a lengthy sequence where Dutch manages to have a tax evasion trial moved to a small town, then brings in his entourage and gladhands everyone before a jury is chosen. It's a wonderful, dark comic mix of urban danger and small-town values.
The big, violent scenes, on the other hand, seem to have eluded Benton. They lack the urgency and shock necessary to make them stand apart from the many other gangster films we've seen lately, seeming instead merely redundant.
Still, there's plenty of glossy, slick entertainment here if you haven't gotten overly tired of mob flicks.
"Billy Bathgate" is rated R for violence, profanity and sex, along with two gratuitous scenes of Kidman in the buff.