Beatty's Well-Written `Bugsy' Does Justice To A Junkyard Visionary

XXX 1/2 "Bugsy," with Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna. Directed by Barry Levinson, from a script by James Toback. Alderwood, Aurora, Crossroads, Factoria, Newmark, Oak Tree, Renton Village, Seatac Mall Cinemas. "R" - Restricted, due to language, violence. --------------------------------------------------------------- Warren Beatty is the third actor this year to play Las Vegas gangster Bugsy Siegel, following Armande Assante in "The Marrying Man" and Richard Grieco in "Mobsters."

Both movies were notorious duds. Beatty's last crime movie was the soporific "Dick Tracy."

But stifle that yawn. Bucking all the odds, "Bugsy" is really pretty wonderful. It's the kind of old-fashioned yet multi-layered movie that Hollywood filmmakers seemed to have forgotten how to make in 1991, when well-written, carefully structured screenplays often appeared to have gone the way of manageable budgets. It couldn't have arrived at a more welcome moment.

Written by James Toback, who created the fatalistic tone of "The Gambler" as well as the snappy banter for "The Pick-Up Artist," and directed by Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning director of "Rain Man" and "Diner," "Bugsy" is an elegant, witty, deliciously ironic portrait of a junkyard visionary that carries wry echoes of "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca."

Instead of building a newspaper empire or creating a Xanadu palace, Bugsy Siegel transforms a dead spot in the Nevada desert into a glitzy gamblers' paradise called Las Vegas. How low, Levinson and Toback can't help but imply, the American Dream has fallen.

Instead of spending a fortune to build a career for the woman he loves, Bugsy throws away thousands trying to impress a selfish, hard-to-get 1940s movie starlet named Virginia Hill. Siegel's tough-as-nails replacement for wife and family, she makes Charles Foster Kane's talentless singer-girlfriend seem like a class act.

Bugsy's idea of gallantry is to give a second chance to cheats and informers by forcing them to grovel or jump off a moving train; they're grateful that he doesn't choose to whack them. Given the chance to prove that he cares about a woman, however, he can be as romantic and self-sacrificing as Humphrey Bogart staging an airport farewell to Ingrid Bergman.

Delivering a shrewd, lively performance that recalls his finest hours in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Bonnie and Clyde," Beatty proves that he is still very much a movie star and a consummate actor. His Bugsy is an appalling mixture of charm and brutality, shooting a man in public one moment, pursuing Hill the next, then using his ingrained showmanship to transform an impractical Vegas dream into too-costly reality.

Annette Bening, Beatty's latest off-screen companion, is a perfect match as Hill, a starlet who keeps Bugsy interested largely by ignoring or leaving or betraying him. Bening isn't quite as tantalizing as she was in a similar role last year in "The Grifters," but that's partly because the script requires her to be more hardboiled than seductive. She is everything the movie calls for her to be.

This couple isn't the script's only concern. In a sense, the center of "Bugsy" is Siegel's longtime friend and associate, mob boss Meyer Lansky, who announces early on that Siegel gets in trouble because he doesn't respect money. That's Bugsy's character, and his destiny.

Exquisitely played by Ben Kingsley, who is a long way from "Gandhi" here, the low-key, gentlemanly Lansky suggests that there is a kind of honor among thieves who choose to live by a code that can't be broken. Lansky may be a Hollywood fantasy of how smoothly murderer and businessman can become the same thing, but Kingsley makes him ring true.

The rest of the cast is just as able: Harvey Keitel as the flamboyant Mickey Cohen, Elliott Gould as Bugsy's pathetic informer friend, Joe Mantegna as the casual movie star George Raft, Wendy Phillips as Bugsy's long-suffering wife, the late Bill Graham as the nagging Lucky Luciano. A generous, actor-oriented director, Levinson allows each of them a moment or two when their relationships with the semi-demented Bugsy become faintly funny.

What finally distinguishes "Bugsy" from other mob movies is its ever-present sense of the absurd. Siegel doesn't think of himself as a criminal but as a potential war hero who schemes to assassinate Mussolini and save the Allied forces the trouble, or as an actor with a future in Hollywood, or as a Howard Hughes-style visionary. He dreams too big, and that's what destroys him.