By Ralph Novak
Updated August 05, 1991 12:00 PM

Christian Slater, Anthony Quinn

It would be tough under the best circumstances to tolerate the moral bankruptcy shown by a film that makes heroes of the reprehensible gangsters “Lucky” Luciano, Frank Costello, “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky. No doubt the next project for the creators of this movie—producer Steve Roth, director Michael Karbelnikoff and writers Mike Mahern and Nicholas Kazan—will be equally tasteful. Something on the camaraderie among Hitler and his boys, maybe.

Compunctions aside, though, this movie is so choppily edited, droningly paced and, in many cases, wretchedly acted that it never seems more than The Godfather’s Boys Auxiliary.

Patrick Dempsey and Richard Grieco—flyweight actors on their good days—play young Lansky and Siegel. (Hearing Dempsey say, “We gotta get tough,” brings to mind Huntz Hall in the Bowery Boys films.) The marginally stronger Slater is Luciano. Costas Mandylor, whose main trait is looking like Aidan Quinn, is Costello.

“At first we was penny-ante,” says Slater in a voice-over. “Then we grew.” That’s all the explication there is as the quartet make a dizzyingly instantaneous transition from New York City street punks into ambitious gangsters. Then they sashay through a tedious series of negotiations with their elders in crime, F. Murray Abraham as Arnold Rothstein, and Anthony Quinn and Michael Gambon (PBS’s The Singing Detective) as fictional crooks. Abraham and Quinn offer some substance, anyway—helped by Twin Peaks’ Lara Flynn Boyle as Slater’s girlfriend.

Gambon, though, has problems with his Italian accent. Worse is Nicholas Sadler as hitman “Mad Dog” Coll; he cackles hysterically and goes mega-psycho every five seconds or so.

The violence is plentiful, graphic and dumb. After a movieful of quadruple crosses, one supposedly savvy mobster is rubbed out as he sits unguarded in a restaurant while one of his archrivals goes to the men’s room.

Karbelnikoff, whose previous experience has been in commercials and whose attention span shows it, goes from one confrontation to another, tossing in gangland-activity montages that could have been lifted from The Untouchables TV series.

To say that production designer Richard Sylbert, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick and cinematographer Lajos Koltai give the settings a handsome, authentic look is like saying that the Titanic had nice chandeliers. (R)