It may tell an ugly tale, but “Mob City” is gorgeous.
The highly stylized six-part crime drama — airing in two-hour installments over the next three Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on TNT — is a pristinely etched mash note to film noir.
From the lighting to the color palettes, the costumes, the hard-boiled dialogue, and the tommy guns that mow down a half-dozen people in the opening minutes of the first episode, it’s clear that series executive producer Frank Darabont (“The Walking Dead,” “The Shawshank Redemption”) is a fan of the darkly seductive genre.
Based in part on the John Buntin bestseller “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City,” “Mob City” is part true crime, part pulp fiction as it spins a tale of tangling between the mob and the cops in 1940s Los Angeles.
In one corner are the police, led by straight-arrow Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough, “Justified”) and a gang task force overseen by Detective Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn, “The Walking Dead”). In the other corner, wearing snazzier wingtips and with hotter tempers, are the criminals including Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Ed Burns, “Saving Private Ryan”), Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke, “Don Jon”), and Sid Rothman (Robert Knepper, “Prison Break”).
Navigating the gray middle ground are Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia, “Heroes”), a lawyer with ties to both the mob and the police, and our narrator, Detective Joe Teague, played by Jon Bernthal of “The Walking Dead,” deftly working a familiar blend of swagger and weariness as a former Marine who saw a little too much during the war.
Throw in a smoky jazz club — the unfortunately named Bunny’s Jungle Club — where dirty deals go down as saxophones provide melancholy commentary, plus mysterious femme fatale Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos, “Clash of the Titans”), and you’ve got a full noir deck.
It may feel a little too full in the first episode as each new character arrives on the scene. And if the whole enterprise teeters on the edge of parody or fetishizing at times — one character actually says, “See ya, toots,” to the female bartender — the uniformly solid acting pulls “Mob City” back from its occasional flirtation with the “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” precipice.
Strong performances come from the leads out to the constellation of “Hey, it’s that guy!” actors in the large supporting cast of good and bad guys, including Gregory Itzin (“24”), Daniel Roebuck (“Lost”), and Ernie Hudson (“Ghostbusters”), who all seem to be relishing the chance to satisfy their “White Heat” jones.
In his key role, Bernthal has finally found a part that settles snugly on his bulldog charms. Playing a trigger-happy mobster, Knepper is, as always, psychotically captivating. And McDonough — who has employed a sort of rigid intensity to play both sides of the law onscreen — is unflinching as a man determined to root out corruption, including in his own ranks.
First episode guest star Simon Pegg, playing a bitter, two-bit, flop-sweat comic with a gambling problem named Hecky Nash, perfectly nails the retro vibe, delivering the Darabont-penned dialogue with just the right snap.
At one point Nash observes of Los Angeles “It’s like a sky full of stars, but only from a distance. Up close, it’s all gutter.”
Once you become accustomed to the rhythms and the homages, “Mob City” serves as a reminder of just that: Some may be seduced by the glamour — even elegance — of cops and robbers, noir style, but up close, the reality is a bloody mess.