Picks and Pans Review: Billy Bathgate

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Dustin Hoffman, Loren Dean

Life's cynical lesson to the ghetto youngster is that crime, and crime alone, pays. With this harsh truism branded on his young soul, Billy Bathgate (Dean) embarks on an inverted pilgrim's progress into the twilight world of Dutch Schultz (Hoffman), the notorious Depression-era gangster.

"Who is this?" Schultz asks. "A boy with luck," replies his chief henchman (Steven Hill), who takes Billy under his tired wing because he knows how swiftly luck can run dry in Schultz's world of betrayal and revenge. Betrayal brings Schultz a new girlfriend, Nicole (Dead Calm) Kidman, and Billy draws the luckless job of looking after her while Schultz fights his last round with the law. The problem, Billy realizes as he falls hopelessly for his gadfly charge, is that she knows enough to put Schultz away for keeps.

Everybody has something on every-body else in Billy Bathgate, a nightmare epic that does dazzling gangland justice to Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. Deftly written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Robert Benton (who teamed with Hoffman in 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer), Bathgate is even more arresting than its forebears because it is observed through the eyes of a near-innocent, Billy, who provides moral perspective—as well as someone to root for.

Dean, in his first starring role, is a raffish lamb in racketeer's clothing, while Kidman, as the imperiled society beauty—she's a Daisy Buchanan with a serious gangster on her hands—sashays toward stardom in a diaphanous dress. Even Bruce Willis, with his permanent comer-tavern smirk, is affecting as Schultz's doomed partner.

Still, it's Hoffman who gives the film its pathological ferocity. Six times an Oscar nominee and twice a winner (for Kramer and for Rain Man in 1988), he has no one left to outdo but himself—so he does. With a deadly staccato in his voice and a demonic glitter in his eyes, Hoffman resurrects the specter of pure, mad-mobster evil that Hollywood lost the day Edward G. Robinson died. (R)

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