‘Boardwalk Empire’ Gambles on Boxing Dwarfs, Rodeo Sex: Review

Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi plays crime boss Enoch "Nucky" Thompson in "Boardwalk Empire." The 12-part HBO series, debuting Sept. 19 at 9 p.m. New York time, is set in Atlantic City in the early 1920s and follows the exploits of Thompson and his rum-running associates and rivals, including Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. Photographer: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO via Bloomberg

Fans of pin-striped, trash-talking thugs will find bliss in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which launches Sunday at 9 p.m. New York time.

The 12-part series, created by Terence Winter of “Sopranos” fame and co-directed by Martin Scorsese, is set in 1920s Atlantic City, as Prohibition rears its sober head.

Steve Buscemi stars as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, town treasurer, top thug and a true eel of a man. He’s as comfortable telling a sob story about eating rats to the weeping ladies of the Temperance Union (who come to life when another speaker hollers “Liquor, thy name’s delirium!”) as he is doing whiskey deals.

He swans through town in a powder-blue Rolls Royce and dresses to match, though his pencil-size neck sometimes gets lost in his collar. He and his similarly slick associates like to season their bravado with the F-word, which by now is rapidly approaching cliche. The temperance ladies might think of them as dapper vulgarians.

Nucky is also a font of shopworn expressions and lame jokes. “First rule of politics,” he tells an associate, is to “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Then there’s “How we gonna keep you down on the farm?” He may have a sharp tongue but he’s lugging around a pretty dull brain.

No Slaughter, Yet

The series starts with the promise of a slaughter afoot but soon enters a sometimes slow-paced segment during which we meet the other principal players, including Nucky’s brother and town sheriff, Elias (Shea Whigham), and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a 22-year-old just home from World War I who says he killed plenty of Germans and soon trains his sights on the local competition.

There’s also Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), a mousy and pregnant temperance enthusiast who, in all fairness, has come to her passion honestly: her husband’s an abusive drunk. She visits Nucky in hopes he’ll give hubby a job, promising “I’ll name my child after you.” The boss man eventually arranges a job of sorts, but not the kind she was expecting.

Little Sex

The series features thug movie stalwarts Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and a Caruso-loving Big Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele), who eventually experiences a graphic act of cranial ventilation.

The opener is not excessively violent and sex is rare, though both pick up a bit as the series progresses. The first naked woman we see is a corpse in a funeral home. Later on Nucky has at it with a finely crafted floozy who invokes a rodeo theme, much to the city slicker’s chagrin.

When the blood finally flows it does so memorably, especially a scene featuring a shotgun blast to an unfortunate head.

There are arresting period touches, including a black-face brass band and a reverent appraisal of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic tract “The International Jew.” The series also boasts some truly strange scenes, such as one viewed through a storefront window where we watch nurses place infants in incubators, and a boxing match between dwarfs who are instructed “no low blows!”

Though the opener sometimes drags a bit, the series picks up steam as Nucky, who’s been a widower for seven years, takes a liking to the freshly widowed Margaret while Jimmy Darmody and Al Capone build their own empires. Meanwhile, Prohibition agents led by the stern and righteous Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) try to close the net around Nucky and his fellow vice lords, sometimes employing thuggery rivaling that of the bad guys.

Though “Boardwalk Empire” isn’t likely to displace “The Sopranos” in the hearts of viewers, it’s strong enough to hook you. Here’s hoping Nucky ends up in an oil drum.

Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions are his own.)

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