This is a character driven gangster flick written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, set in an unnamed Eastern city in 1929. Leo (Albert Finney) is a powerful Irish crime lord who has the police and mayor at his beck and call. When an uppity Italian gangster, Johnny Caspar (Jon Poluto), asks him to be allowed to rub out Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturo), a double dealing gambler, Leo refuses. He's madly in love with Bernie's low-down and lovely sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Soon there's blood on the streets and the chatter of tommy guns in the air as a full-scale gang war breaks out.

The Coens who garnered praise from critics for their creative antics in Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987) keep that tradition alive with this stylized reworking of the gangster film. In his best work to date, Gabriel Byrne plays Tom, a gamesman who is fired as Leo's right hand man after admitting to an affair with Verna. Heavily in debt to loan sharks, he decides to test the waters by joining Caspar's gang. He thrives on risk, but he lets his emotions get in the way of his work when he refuses to murder Bernie as evidence of his allegiance to the Italians. There is a certain pleasure in watching this gamesman, and the Coens — especially Ethan as the director — keep our attention riveted on him — the thrill seeker who is like an aerial artist working without a net.