Produced by Robert DeNiro and originally shown on NBC, Witness To The Mob tells the true story of Sammy 'The Bull' Gravano (played here by Nicholas Turturo), a New York City mobster who started out as a lowly 'soldier' and slowly but surely worked his way up the ladder of the now infamous Gambino crime family. How did Sammy do it? He proved his worth by murdering anybody who his bosses deemed needing it, including but not limited to close friends, a brother-in-law, and eventually his own mob boss, one Paul Castellano (played by Abe Vigoda).
The powers that be in the Gambino crime family took notice of Gravano's skills and determination and he was promoted time and again. Eventually, however, Gravano would notice some unusual behavior within the family system and he would decide to assist the Fed's in their quest to put crime boss John Gotti (Tom Sizemore) behind bars.
Compared to better known mob movies like Goodfellas or The Godfather this made for TV movie seems a little tepid. A couple of bloody kills like an assassination that takes place in an indoor swimming pool and a hit that takes place in the back of a car ensure that this isn't exactly family fare, but the film feels restrained at times. That said, Witness To The Mob isn't a bad true crime tale. Nicholas Turturo does a good job as Gravano and brings a sense of menace and intensity to the character that allows us to believe him as the dangerous character that Gravano really was. Just as good, if not better, is Sizemore as Gotti. He's got that cockiness to him that works well in the context of the story and the character and his outburst in the scenes where he blows his top feel pretty genuine.
The movie also does a good job with the New York City locations. Parts of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan all appear in the film and while even if it doesn't feel like 100% authentic 'period footage' (it takes place a couple of decades ago and New York City has changed a lot since then) it's close enough. Like Taxi Driver, though to a lesser extent, the city plays a big part in the atmosphere and the mood of the film. While it isn't quite its own character like it is in Scorsese's classic, it definitely adds a sense of gritty realism and earthiness to the movie that helps it quite a bit.
Ultimately, Witness To The Mob is good. It's not great, but it is good. There are absolutely better and more interesting mafia movies out there and this film can't help but live in the shadow of those pictures but as a document of what Gravano went through and the interesting story that was his relationship with Gotti, it works. The movie is well paced and well shot and an appropriate instrumental soundtrack helps add some poignancy and emotion to the scenes that call for it. The film does dabble in mob movie clichés too often for its own good and that hurts the picture to a certain extent but if you can look past that and accept this as a made for TV movie (which, for some reason, means it should be held to a lesser standard) you'll probably enjoy this one. The script takes liberties with the source material but authenticity has never been the strong point of the 'based on a true story' movie. The film is overly dramatic and content to serve as entertainment rather than a particularly accurate account or portrayal of the events that inspired it but as simple entertainment it works.
Witness To The Mob is presented in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. Video quality is decent, but far from perfect. Though the movie is spread out over two discs there are some mild compression artifacts noticeable in the darker scenes and the picture is interlaced, sadly. That said, color reproduction looks nice and natural and there aren't any serious problems with print damage or edge enhancement. The picture is definitely watchable and it's not bad, but there's been room left for improvement to be sure.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is of decent quality. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion to complain about and the dialogue remains easy to understand and follow. The levels are properly balanced and the score sounds quite good. There are a couple of scenes where things are just a slight bit on the flat side but that's a minor complain, the mix on this release is more than serviceable. Optional English subtitles are included.
Aside from a static menu and chapter selection, this release is completely barebones (unless you count a catalogue insert inside the case as an extra).
Witness To The Mob is a decent enough time killer but it doesn't bring anything new to the genre that we haven't seen done before and done better at that. A few good performances help things a bit but despite some shining moments, there are moments where the film drags. Not a bad film, but not a classic - worth a rental for mob movie junkies.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.