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Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty) was the class act in crime back in the Forties. He wore elegant clothes, screwed the sexiest women — notably starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) — and partied with movie greats like his childhood pal George Raft (Joe Mantegna). But his business created an image problem. Siegel ran the West Coast rackets for his partners Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Lucky Luciano (the late rock impresario Bill Graham in a striking turn). Siegel loved Hollywood; he even took diction lessons and shot a screen test. But a dream distracted him. He wanted to build a gambling palace — the Flamingo — in the desert of Las Vegas. Siegel had vision.

At least this movie thinks so. Directed in high style by Barry Levinson (“Avalon”), “Bugsy” has been tailored to Beatty by writer James Toback. Disreputable, dangerous glamour is still the essence of what pulls us into places like Vegas and movies like “Bugsy.” Siegel knew that, and so does Toback, whose boldly perceptive script is laced with enough dark wit and savage irony to calm the moral watchdogs. To-back doesn’t find killer Siegel admirable. Attractive? That’s another story.

“Bugsy” packs the rat-a-rat action and lush romanticism of the gangster films that Siegel prized. Beatty is terrific; in contrast to his embalmed Dick Tracy, he tears into his role. Bening also makes a knockout impression, though too much is made of her sex bouts with Siegel (presumably, having Bening call her offscreen love “a philandering fuck” will boost box office). “Bugsy” is less an indictment of the dark side than a black-comic look at our continuing fascination with it. Even when this powerhouse entertainment trips on its ambitions, you can’t shake it off.

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