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'McMafia' makes an offer you can refuse

"McMafia" is a somewhat unfortunate title for an AMC series that feels like Mafia Lite, creating an image of assembly...

Posted: Feb. 27, 2018 12:13 AM
Updated: Feb. 27, 2018 12:13 AM

"McMafia" is a somewhat unfortunate title for an AMC series that feels like Mafia Lite, creating an image of assembly-line added on to an existing franchise. While there are strong moments in this globetrotting international series, it plays like a retread of earlier mob tales -- albeit with a timely tie-in to the Russians and money laundering -- in a way that represents an offer you can safely refuse.

Based on Misha Glenny's best-selling book and produced in concert with the BBC, the series stars James Norton as Alex Godman, the son of an exiled Russian mob boss (Aleksey Serebryakov, who almost exclusively speaks in subtitled Russian). Having been raised in England, Alex has gone legit, holding a high-powered job in finance when a threat to the family draws him into a web of corruption. In response, he forges an alliance with a shadowy exile turned Israeli citizen, played by the ever-reliable David Strathairn, who wants to launder $100 million through his fund.

If it all sounds a little like "The Godfather" -- the privileged son destined for better things reluctantly drawn into the family business, but oddly suited to it with his steely, cool-headed nerve -- rest assured, it is. Throw in a pinch of "Billions" in the high-stakes financial machinations, where Alex's actions provoke suspicion on the part of an astute coworker.

Even working from that familiar playbook, the particulars have their merits, such as when Alex balks at a transaction because of its illegality. "How illegal?" his mother (Mariya Shukshina) asks. The problem is that while the characters prove reasonably strong, they all feel like mere variations on what we've seen before.

Through four previewed chapters of the eight-episode series, Alex slides farther and farther down the rabbit hole, while providing a travelogue of Europe as he visits various opulent locales -- basically, Lifestyles of the Rich & Corrupt. In the process, his early protestation that "I'm a banker, not a gangster" becomes increasingly hollow, especially with the threat of violence never far away.

Those who pay attention to the headlines, naturally, will find extra oomph in the subject matter, inasmuch as the flow of money from unsavory Russians -- including oligarchs operating with their government's blessing -- has been very much in the news of late.

Still, the show joins such a rich, storied history of organized crime on screen, from "The Godfather" to "The Sopranos," that it has to be categorized in that basket, and can't help but look a bit pale by comparison.

In that regard, "McMafia" isn't exactly fast food, but it's easily overlooked as another storefront in a genre that, in TV and movie terms, has long since become its own sort of franchise.

"McMafia" premieres Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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