This is a different kind of gangster flick. It is an intelligent foray into the world of the roaring twenties and the corruption and speakeasies engendered by Prohibition. This money making turf is zealously guarded by rival crime bosses: Leo, masterfully played by Albert Finney, and Johnny Caspar, well played by Jon Polito.
Tom Reagan, beautiful played by the darkly smoldering Gabriel Byrne, is Leo's main man. Unfortunately for him, he is feeling the noose around his neck tighten, as he owes some big gambling debts that he is unable to pay. Moreover, he is head over heels in love with Verna, played with hard edged, sexual intensity by Marcia Gay Harden, who just happens to be Leo's main squeeze. Moreover, Verna's bookmaker brother, Bernie Bernbaum, played with smarmy abandon by John Turturro, has a contract on his life and is on the run. When Tom finds himself helping Bernie, he soon discovers that no good deed goes unpunished. All this makes life very complicated and difficult for Tom.
At times, it is difficult to ascertain who the good guys and the bad guys really are, or for whom they really work, as they all seem to march to the beat of a different drummer. There is more to what is going on than initially meets the eye. Make no mistake, this is a multi-faceted movie that works well on many levels. As with all Coen brothers' films, there is an underlay of sly humor that permeates the film.
The dialogue is sharp and evocative of another time, as it is laden with Prohibition era slang, and its stacatto delivery is most effective. The characters all walk the walk and talk the talk. The performances by the entire case are stellar. Look for Steve Buscemi in the small role of Mink, and do not blink or you will miss Frances McDormand's performance as Johnny Caspar's secretary. All in all, this is an excellent film and another feather in the collective cap of the Coen brothers.