By Sean Beckwith – Contributor
Steve Buscemi has a long and accomplished acting career. He was disturbing as a serial killer in “Con Air,” terrifying as a hit man in “Things To Do When You’re Dead in Denver” and practical and smart as Mr. Pink in “Reservoir Dogs,” but all were supporting roles. Despite this varied history, his career lacked a crown jewel, so it is fitting that his first major starring role is in an HBO series. In “Boardwalk Empire,” he plays Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, an Irish gangster/city treasurer in 1920s Atlantic City.
The Martin Scorsese production is the latest in HBO’s long list of addictive Sunday night shows. The dialects, vocabularies and wardrobes are all authentic. From the removable collar to the use of the word “chiseller,” almost everything is realistic. However, it is not historically accurate in a couple ways. Thompson, Al Capone and Lucky Luciano were all real gangsters in the 1920s, but their interactions will help the show’s ratings more than they will please the people over at the History Channel.
Having said that, the storyline does not suffer. Buscemi hob-knobs with politicians, intimidates rival gangsters and plays the boss role exquisitely. Relatively unknown supporting actors Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald and Michael Shannon add drama and grit to the show.
Pitt plays James “Jimmy” Darmody, an Irish WWI veteran turned thug who works for Buscemi and has a gruesome lust for blood. Macdonald plays Margaret Schroeder, an Irish immigrant whose husband is killed by the order of Nucky. Nucky subsequently takes a liking to the righteous and intelligent Schroeder. Shannon plays government agent Nelson Van Alden. Not the typical Elliot Ness prohibition agent, Van Alden is driven more by God than by the government, and wants to save criminals from the fires of hell rather than the confinement of a cell.
“Boardwalk Empire” has all the swearing, sex, drugs and violence HBO can show. It is a simple and frankly effective formula. HBO knows it can attract a certain audience just by its ability to show things other stations cannot. The thing that takes “Boardwalk Empire” from good to great, though, is Steve Buscemi. He’s shown his versatility in myriad supporting roles, and now that versatility is on full display in a well-deserved, starring role.
This article was re-edited on Dec. 7.