Telling the story of a hit man who returns to his old neighborhood for a contract job that’s imbued with family issues, the made-for-TV melodrama Mongo’s Back in Town is fairly thoughtful in terms of characterization and themes. Making the piece even more interesting is a noteworthy cast: Joe Don Baker, Charles Cioffi, Sally Field, Anne Francis, Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen. Excepting Baker and Field, none of these players has room to do much that’s out of the ordinary, but their collective efforts, in tandem with director Marvin J. Chomsky’s understated storytelling, ensure that Mongo’s Back in Town feels like something more than a typical small-screen crime picture. The murky script has something to do with Mongo Nash (Baker) answering a call from his brother, low-rent gangster Mike Nash (Cioffi), to off someone. Local cop Lt. Pete Tolstad (Savalas) sees Mongo arrive, so he knows what’s up and tries to prevent bloodshed. Meanwhile, Mongo happens across Vikki (Field), a young woman who recently left her home in rural West Virginia to start a new life in the big city. Compelled by a combination of lust and pity, Mongo gives Vikki a place to stay, putting her in the crossfire as the date of the big hit approaches. Also pulled into the drama are a moll (Francis) and Tolstad’s partner (Sheen).
Although the plot of Mongo’s Back in Town is alternately convoluted and pedestrian, it’s possible to watch the movie just for the acting and character work. On that level, it’s fairly rewarding. Baker gets to carry most of the picture’s dramatic weight, and he does so gracefully. Playing a thug defined by his past choices and the patterns they created, Baker shows glimmers of sensitivity in his scenes with Field, because even though she’s not purely innocent—a wise choice on the filmmakers’ part—she’s redeemable, which may or may not be true of Baker’s character. This unpredictable relationship creates dramatic tension of an emotional sort, which offers an effective complement to the ticking-clock suspense stemming from the contract killing. Yet it’s not as if Baker’s character comes across as some gentle giant in a world of nefarious hoodlums; some of the crimes that Mongo commits are horrendous. Less dimensional are the cop scenes, with Sheen’s character offering by-the-book contrast to his partner’s instinctive style. And to call the material with Francis’ character threadbare would require overstatement.
Still, the best elements of Mongo’s Back in Town work well enough to make the picture worthwhile. Polished and quiet, Mongo’s Back in Town favors gentle shadings of morality over flamboyant action scenes, so the film’s creative team deserves credit for trying something different within the parameters of a familiar genre.
Mongo’s Back in Town: FUNKY