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Gangster Squad Review

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by Casimir Harlow May 27, 2013

  • Movies review


    Gangster Squad Review

    Despite an ensemble cast to die for, all coming out with Tommy guns' blazing, Gangster Squad is closer to a cross between Dick Tracy and Sin City than an honest attempt at capturing the glory of Brian De Palma's classic cops-vs-gangsters flick, The Untouchables – the movie which this so clearly desires to prove a successor to.

    That's not to say that there isn’t some fun to be had in watching this stylish period ensemble actioner; but just go in with suitably corrected expectations - you'e not going to get anything true-to-life here (despite the frustratingly inaccurate "inspired by real events" bookends to the story), nor much of any great substance. Just throwaway, cliched dialogue; insubstantial, stereotypical characterisations; painfully predictable plotting; and frivolous action sequences. You won't particularly care for any of the characters and you won't get swept up by the plot.

    Funny thing is - despite all of these flaws - if you're prepared to be a little bit forgiving, you might still have a blast watching it. Taken as a stylish slice of macho posturing, cartoon violence and frenzied action (which, alone, gives the period setting more of a steampunk feel), it’s hard to complain about watching Josh Brolin bust heads, Sean Penn spit venom, Ryan Gosling breathe sheer cool, Emma Stone strut seductively, and Nick Nolte growl gruffly in the background. Especially when they do it with such style. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a little bit more substance behind all that flash.

    The story has a Capone-like Mickey Cohen running the criminal underworld in post-World War II Los Angeles. He practically owns the City; controlling the streets with hundreds of cops and politicians in his pocket, and so ageing Police Chief Bill Parker decides to set up a unit who will work off-the-book to take down Cohen. Specifically instructed not to kill him – lest another mobster rear up in his place – but instead to break his organisation, he charges hard-nosed, upstanding War veteran Sergeant John O’Mara with the task of putting together a team for the job; they soon become known as “The Gangster Squad”.

    Gangster Squad feels like a grand, elaborate, 1000-piece puzzle. But half of the pieces are missing, and, since you don’t have the original box for the puzzle, you can’t quite tell what the end picture is supposed to look like. Whether it’s trying to be a bona fide classic entry in the genre, or trying to be an all-out, pedal-to-the-metal period actioner (think 300, only with gangsters), you can never really tell. Worse still, it doesn’t hit the mark in either direction.

    Taken as pure graphic novel / comic book chaos, there are flash moments of excitement; sequences where the style-over-substance approach works impressively – a well-handled car chase here; a brutal establishing bust for Brolin’s tough-ass O’Mara character there; and several caricature characters who would not look out of place in such a setup. It almost hits the flashy neo-noir mark, following those Sin City footsteps to deliver earnest one-liners, hard-broiled action and slow-motion CG violence in equal measure. Yet it doesn’t quite deliver on that count; squandering the opportunity to go-for-broke and capitalise on this over-the-top style-over-substance approach. Yes, you read that right, there are instances where style over substance does work, so long as the movie commits to that endgame. Ultimately Gangster Squad plays it safe.

    The flipside is the straight period gangster thriller angle: the kind of project which, if done right, could stand tall amidst everything from The Untouchables to Boardwalk Empire. To do that, though, you need a strong narrative; memorable characters; and snappy dialogue – and some period authenticity too. Gangster Squad comes up short on all counts.

    It’s about as true-to-life as Dick Tracy. Or Sin City. Sure, real-life names are bandied around enthusiastically enough, but the history books would tell a completely different story about these individuals, not least the central figure of mobster Mickey Cohen, whose latter years were pretty far from what was described here. It’s a fun fictional romp, but the stupid codas at the beginning and end – ‘inspired by true events’ at the start, and a closing coda which tells you the fates of all the characters, as if they were taken from history – are somewhat misleading. This isn’t Bugsy (which featured Harvey Keitel in the Mickey Cohen role) or Boardwalk Empire (which also features Cohen); it doesn’t even try to vaguely hint at the true history – probably because it was too close to the more familiar history of Capone – but instead drifts into completely made-up territory almost right from the get-go.

    Still, a strong narrative, memorable characters and snappy dialogue would have made up for any lack of authenticity. Unfortunately the story is basically just a recycled, poor man’s The Untouchables. Aside from a couple of fun action sequences, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. An elite team set up to take down an omnipotent mobster. The team has to work outside the law in order to catch their prey. The team includes a guy who is a crack shot, and another who is the ‘brains’ behind the technical aspects of the operation. The leader has a loving, vulnerable wife who is concerned for his safety. The lead mobster has a tough right-hand man enforcer whose actions make things personal for the team. Perhaps the writers figured that it’s been more than a quarter of a Century since Brian De Palma’s classic, so why worry about churning out the same damn story. Unfortunately, however, in that time viewers have had more than their fair share of interesting, unique gangster adaptations – even the hit and miss Lawless succeeds on this count, and certainly Boardwalk Empire is a pioneering TV show in this regard – and following such a familiar pattern provokes predictability in the extreme.

    Even taken on its own – for those who aren’t familiar with any of the previously mentioned, superior, gangster flicks – the narrative is a fairly standard one, and not exceptional in any particular way. As stated, it’s the kind of thing that would just about sustain a flimsy, style-over-substance period actioner, if only the filmmakers had committed to making such a movie.

    Still, it’s the cast who you really have to feel sorry for. They really do try their utmost in almost universally clichéd roles, but they are generally fighting an uphill struggle.

    Josh Brolin is still fighting to secure his A-list rating. Sure, he gets some prime roles, but he’s normally either overshadowed by his co-cast-members (Wall Street 2, No Country for Old Men, True Grit) or, as is the case here, he’s simply let down by the material (although at least this isn’t Jonah Hex!). Indeed his most memorable recent performance was in Men In Black III, which was fun mainly for his fantastic imitation of Tommy Lee Jones.

    Here he gets a great little introduction which the rest of the film simply doesn’t live up to. Notwithstanding the fact that his hard-boiled detective is clichéd in the extreme, he could have been a solid central focus for the film. Unfortunately, as the rest of the team-members are introduced, Brolin’s leader gets side-lined; relegated to increasingly brazen gung-ho actions which smack more of brash stupidity than courageous dedication.

    It doesn’t help that the only fleeting attempts at character development – the interactions with his wife (played by Mireille Enos, who recently took on the lead role in the US remake of the excellent Danish TV series, The Killing, and who takes a bit of time to warm to her role of the vulnerable, concerned and supportive Mrs O’Mara, here) – are both poorly conceived and largely inconsistent. Corny as it was, her “the war’s over, Sarge” speech would have been so much more effective had there been one iota of sincerity in Brolin’s response; and had they followed through with it by showing even a hint of reservation in his subsequent actions.

    I suppose Brolin can’t really complain though – if Ryan Gosling finds his talent stifled within this production, then Brolin couldn’t have rightfully expected to fare any better. Gosling is a marvel to watch; a reason to seek out and at least rent most every film he’s been in. Yet, even after 2011’s trio of varied hits – the solid political drama The Ides of March; the refreshing relationship drama Crazy Stupid Love; and the magnificent Film Of The Year, Drive – he can’t seem to escape Gangster Squad’s inconsistent character depiction. Thankfully at least The Place Beyond the Pines got his 2013 schedule off to a great start and here’s hoping his re-teaming with the Drive crew for Only God Forgives turns out to be the Best Film Of The Year that I expect it to be.

    His character – a sort-of alcoholic playboy cop who ill-advisedly strikes up a relationship with mobster Mickey Cohen’s moll and then, after witnessing the collateral damage of Cohen’s vicious enforcer, decides to join the “Squad” – could have easily been the best thing about this film, purely through Gosling’s nuanced performance, but there are simply too many inconsistencies to be reconciled: Gosling’s character flits from liquor-soaked playboy to vengeance-fuelled loose cannon to the sensible component in the group in a heartbeat. It simply doesn’t make any sense for his character to attempt to temper Brolin’s gung-ho behaviour; to act as the voice of reason when, just a couple of scenes earlier, somebody was having to do exactly the same thing and restrain him.

    Similarly his character’s relationship with Emma Stone’s suitably sultry gangster’s moll (Stone, fresh from The Amazing Spider-Man, doing her best sexy Jessica Rabbit impersonation – and nailing it!) feels woefully underdeveloped: early chemistry between the two of them – perhaps a hold-over from their perfect pairing in Crazy Stupid Love – dissipates across the runtime, to the point where a later confrontation over her ongoing relationship with Cohen feels totally out of place. Don’t even get me started on the events involving her character and Gosling’s character’s gangster best friend, which go utterly undeveloped.

    It’s not Gosling’s fault – he’s clearly putting his all into every single scene, but with no sense of continuity of character development from one scene to the next, he simply didn’t stand a chance at coming out of the movie unscathed.

    The entire supporting cast is comprised of familiar faces – even in the smaller supporting roles – but few of them get room to breathe, and all of them are hampered by the cardboard cut-out characters they play and stilted dialogue they utter, seldom getting enough screen time to suffer as a result of the same inconsistencies that plague Brolin and Gosling’s leads.

    Here we get not only a token black squad member – The Adjustment Bureau’s Anthony Mackie, whose character is great with a knife but, inexplicably, tends to use one at all the most inappropriate times (he clearly ignores Connery’s fist/bat/knife/gun speech in The Untouchables) – but also a token Native American character, played by Michael Pena. Pena was great in Crash, but took almost a decade to come close to hitting the same mark again (End of Watch) and has, more often than not, been relegated to something of a comedy foil (not to be confused with his outright comedy, like the underrated Observe and Report, where he excels); a goofy counterpart to the serious lead character, so much so that this association tends to infect even his more dramatic parts. Indeed, I was grateful that he didn’t have a bigger part as he certainly embraces a more lightweight performance for his role here.

    Now, since we’re drawing Untouchables parallels left, right and centre, then the equivalent acting parts here would probably be divided as follows: Brolin getting the meat of a cross between Costner’s and Connery’s roles; Gosling picking up the scraps of those two, whilst infusing a hint of Andy Garcia’s part; and Giovanni Ribisi playing the clear fourth member – the technical ‘brains’ of the squad (the equivalent of The Untouchables’ Charles Martin Smith). Whilst Ribisi does his best in the part – and has proven in everything from The Gift to Contraband that he’s a reliable little character actor – it’s a thankless part: a character whose actions are ultimately redundant; whose arc is not capitalised upon; and who feels little more than the ‘token geek’ member of the squad.

    Perhaps the only spark of genius in the team comes from unexpected quarters – the T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick (Safe House, The Unit), who makes the most of his brief supporting role as the crack-shot member of the group. Feeling like suitably old school gunslinger cowboy – with more than a nod to Lee Van Cleef’s character from For a Few Dollars More – Patrick certainly makes the most of what is little more than a glorified cameo.

    Even Nick Nolte – who reached something of a career high with his fantastic Oscar Nominated supporting performance opposite Tom Hardy in Warrior, and who is not unfamiliar with LA gangster flicks set during this period, having previously led his own based-on-real-life special police unit in the engaging nineties flick Mulholland Falls – can’t survive the botched rendition of legendary real-life LA police chief William Parker. Parker was renowned for almost single-handedly rooting out corruption in the force during the 50s – to which end he pioneered the shift from beat-based cops to patrol-based cops and also streamlined the force into a smaller unit of better men, rather than a larger legion of corrupt ones – as well as desegregating it. His efforts were significant, yet his depiction here is anything but, with Nolte getting the same kind of inconsistent treatment that handicaps all of the other characters: at once establishing the ‘Gangster Squad’ and then, at the first sign of trouble, seeking to immediately shut them down.

    The biggest bone of contention for many, I suspect, will probably be Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with his performance – and his character arc isn’t flawed like the rest, even if it doesn’t really vary from all the other ‘standard’ gangster portrayals in cinema – but the trouble is that they went a little over the top with his makeup. Looking at images of the real Cohen, you wonder why they have forged Penn into such a strange looking creature; he’s not unlike Mickey Rourke’s Marv from Sin City – prosthetics enhancing his nose and chin to an almost cartoon-like level. In some shots it works fine, but in others he does resemble one of the exaggerated comic book villains from the likes of Dick Tracy. For some, it won’t even be an issue, whilst others may find the look a little too comedy and fake, and subsequently be taken right out of the movie. It’s a shame because I don’t see how it serves the story at all.

    Aside from the fact that the chop-and-change editing has left the character arcs feeling wholly inconsistent, director Ruben Fleischer does a competent job pulling together this gangster flick. The action sequences are reasonably well-staged and there are plenty of stylish ideas thrown into the mix; some which stick, and some which don’t. You certainly get the feeling that Fleischer – fresh from his engaging zombie satire, Zombieland – could have easily turned around a gangster satire here, with the exact same story and just a more obvious tongue-in-cheek approach to the dialogue, so there’s an argument to be made for the fact that his natural habitat appears to lie with more comedy-infused features, but he doesn’t do anything particularly wrong in terms of directing. Perhaps he should have just reviewed the end product a little better and chastised his editor and/or the scriptwriters when it came to all those niggling inconsistencies.

    I also suspect that the horrendous cinema shootings last year – which led to a pivotal second-act cinema-set sequence (which was previously showcased in the original trailer) being dropped completely; the release date set back; and significant reshoots commissioned last year – didn’t help with the fluidity of the finished product. Whilst the replacement scene, set in Chinatown and incorporating some CG-edited footage from the original scene (when the squad are moving up what clearly looks like it could have once been the aisle to a cinema theatre), doesn’t particularly damage the movie, or the narrative, I suspect that it allowed the director and/or editor yet further time to fiddle with their film. As a famously extravagant director once noted, you basically edit a movie until it is prised out of your hands (in other words, if somebody didn’t stop them, directors could edit their movies for years), and I think that this can sometimes be detrimental to the end result. What we have here is a finished product that feels like it’s been streamlined that little bit too much; scenes are missing which may have eased the flow and helped explain the shift in the various characters’ behaviour from one scene to the next. Who knows – perhaps the finished cut was always this bastardised, but the film definitely feels like it could have been served by a longer cut which flowed more naturally and at least allowed for some character development (and even the limited Deleted Scenes included on this release are a testament to that).

    After what is practically a thesis on everything that was wrong with this piece I’m going to come right out and say that it is still enjoyable. What? How? You may well be confused, but the issues that arise from the production largely lie with the fact that it had the potential to be far better than it was: the ensemble cast alone demanded that this at least be a memorable slice of gangster fiction. And it really isn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that, taken for pure entertainment value, it is a pretty fun way to spend the best part of two hours. It’s far better than average, and boasts some exciting action sequences, a fair amount of brutality (more than I’d have expected from a 15, but, then again, Jack Reacher offered far more than I’d have expected from a 12A, so clearly the boundaries are shifting once again) and some brief flashes of interesting performances.

    It’s at the other end of the 7/10 spectrum to, for example, Lawless – another period gangster drama which suffered from feeling like something of a waste of potential. Unlike Lawless, however, which boasted a must-see performance from the ever-reliable Tom Hardy, Gangster Squad doesn’t really have any single noteworthy aspect to it. The closest we get is Ryan Gosling’s earnest contribution and perhaps Robert Patrick’s crack-shot snippets – or some nifty, stylish, action moments early-on – but these are just hints of greatness in what is definitely a watch-once, forget-about-after period action flick. Still, there’s no denying that if you’re prepared to take Gangster Squad for what it is – and forget about what it could have been – then you’re in for a pretty fun ride.