MAFIA – DVD review

For a lot of people, a job is a job is a job. You do what the man tells you, you cash your paycheck, you go home. Why go out of your way trying to make the best widget at the factory?

I make this (also generic) observation after watching the 70’s-set widget in the shape of a crime drama “Mafia” starring Ving Rhames. Rhames plays Renzo Wes, a ruthless crime boss building his empire through murder and turf war, but haunted by his conscience. Pam Grier plays the cop obsessed with bringing Renzo down because of her partner’s murder, and Robert Patrick is her new partner, with an agenda of his own. Further plot description is unnecessary.

That’s the basic design specs behind this particular widget, and it is far from the best in the factory. As I was watching, I pondered what everyone involved in this rote exercise was thinking during filming. The actors, the writer/director Ryan Combs, the technical departments, even the key grip. It looks like a real movie on the outside, and nominally functions as one, but it’s all so uniformly tired and immediately forgettable one has to wonder.

When you’re in the middle of filming an amateurish genre time-filler like this, surely you know it, right? Rhames, Grier, and Patrick sleepwalk through almost everything here, and the supporting cast of footsoldiers, strippers, girlfriends, and inexplicably British-sounding enemies fares even worse. Maybe the leads were doing a friend a favor when they signed on, though Rhames should known better, having worked with director Combs before, on previous straight-to-video features such as “King of the Avenue” and “Caged Animal.” Cash the check and go home.

Combs’ script is a mess, not so much written as assembled from bins of made-to-order generic parts: one from Bin A (crooked cop, questioning henchman), one from bin B (random act of violence with handgun/plastic bag/chainsaw), one from bin C (religious symbolism, predictable comeuppance). Direct, film and edit in haphazard fashion, and voila! “Mafia” constantly teeters on the brink of self-parody, and indeed, would certainly have been a better film if played for laughs.

And even working with an obviously low budget, the throwback 70’s costumes and hairstyles are absolutely the most entertaining thing about “Mafia.” Sideburns, leisure suits, back-to-Africa necklaces, hog-leg stogies. Rhames sports a Mohawk that makes him look like a bloated Mr. T, and Grier wears an afro so huge you think that’s where she hides her badge and piece when she’s undercover.

A job is a job. Here the job was to make a widget about criminals and cops and violent death, and the filmmakers have done just that. And it’s only 82 minutes long. That’s about the best you can say for “Mafia.”

“Mafia” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen format. The low-end lighting and cinematography are fully on display.

The audio track is 5.1 Dolby Digital. Guns boom appropriately, the chainsaw rattles menacingly, and Rhames’ resolute baritone comes through adequately on the center channel.

Original theatrical trailer

Parting thoughts:
A tired, generic crime drama, “Mafia” is a slog for all involved, filmmakers and audience alike. But I love that Mohawk.