By Terry Kelleher
February 22, 1999 12:00 PM

HBO (Sat, Feb. 27, 8 p.m. ET)

Meyer Lansky, the diminutive organized-crime legend known for his business head rather than his trigger finger, has been a fascinating secondary figure in such Mob movies as Bugsy (with Ben Kingsley as Lansky) and The Godfather, Part II (with Lee Strasberg as a very Lansky-like character called Hyman Roth). In this film he gets the spotlight, yet we don’t see him too clearly.

Richard Dreyfuss portrays Lansky (who died in 1983) from his 40s to his 70s, but writer David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) and director John McNaughton (Mad Dog and Glory) have created an intricate flashback structure that also shows him in his adolescence (played by Ryan Merriman) and in his 20s (Max Perlich). The time shifts keep the narrative from picking up much momentum, and Lansky becomes more a commentary on the subject’s life than a dramatization of it. Dreyfuss is believable as the character ages, but this Lansky spends so much time rationalizing his underworld past (“I’m a gambler, nothing more”) and complaining of ill treatment by U.S. law enforcement agencies and the government of Israel (which barred him from settling there in the early ’70s) that he comes off as something of an old crank. Most gangland pictures are bang-bang. This is more kvetch-kvetch.

Bottom Line: Interesting, but an offer you can refuse