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Gangster Squad, Movie Review

Written by Alexander Tucker   // 01/08/2013

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“The far superior L.A. Confidential managed to navigate that same territory flawlessly without sacrificing the excitement of being in Los Angeles during that time amidst the chaos and underbelly. Of course, do not just take my word for it. The advance audience I saw it with could not stop breaking into laughter and jeers in at least six major plot points, including the climax and epilogue, as if it were a comedy. One can only assume this was unintentional.”

 

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Gangster Squad, Movie Review

 

Some films, like Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, cannot catch a break. After being positioned in an awards-friendly early fall release date, the film had to be re-written, shot, and edited due to some major similarities between a certain set-piece in the film and the July Dark Knight Rises massacre. Instead of getting pushed into the behemoth-ridden month of December, the wise folks at Warner Bros decided to position it as the first major non-horror-related release of 2013, a traditional dumping ground that is now becoming one of the best times to release viscerally violent films that they couldn’t a place for during Halloween.  In the meantime, the country is now starting to get over an elementary school massacre and major pleas to change gun laws in the USA. Suddenly, violence in the movies does not seem to be so in vogue these days. Does any of this make the cartoonish and over-the-top histrionics of Gangster Squad any more relevant or dramatically satisfying? Not really. However, it does begin to raise some major issues with the film itself.

 

Gangster Squad attempts to set itself up to be a true crime classic. On paper, it seems to have it all. The film has a riveting true crime story set in post-war Los Angeles, one of the best American male casts in quite a while, a dolled-up Emma Stone, is based on the book of the same name by Paul Lieberman, a hot director, an Oscar-winning DP, and first rate production design and costuming. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as anyone who paid attention to the news last July, a whole lot. The new L.A. Confidential, it seriously is not.

 

The story starts in 1949. Los Angeles is the location. The city is starting to revitalize itself after WWII, the beginning of an economic boom when a lot of east coasters started figuring out the benefits of Manifest Destiny. Naturally, this sets the city up to become a crime-infested cesspool. Sean Penn is true to form in his larger-than-life portrayal of mobster Mickey Cohen. Apparently, this is a person who has full control over the city through well-connected bribes and hired goons. Based on Mr. Penn’s performance, one would assume that money was all that Cohen really had on his side in the first place. He is seen as a former champion boxer who aged pretty badly. His glory days are clearly behind him. Of course, this does not stop him from trying to further his control over the city. Enter Sgt. John O’Mara, played to gruff perfection by Josh Brolin. As anyone who saw Milk can attest, their characters don’t like each other too much. O’Mara is determined to use whatever power the law gives him to bring Cohen to justice. Of course, this honest cop will have deal with the fact that law enforcers have become just as corrupt as the criminals themselves. He supposes that it is now time to fight fire with fire. Fair enough.

 

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Of course, there is romance in the air and that comes courtesy of another cinematic reunion, that of Ryan Gosling as another LAPD, Sgt. Jerry Wooters, and Emma Stone as Cohen’s young lover, Grace. Like their last collaboration in Crazy, Stupid, Love, their characters nearly steal the show from the flashy performances surrounding them and the all-encompassing squirm-inducing mob violence. However, their chemistry is no match for an underwritten sub-plot. Mr. Gosling continues to create one memorable performance after another after a whole year of being absent from the screen. Though I find his look to be too contemporary for this period setting, his acting abilities made up for a lot. Miss Stone also does a credible job with the drama given her under-developed, rather clichéd character. There are also credible performances by Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, Mireille Enos, Robert Patrick, and Nick Nolte.

 

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My major problem is that for a film so dead-set on the theme of redemption, it does little to save itself from self-parody. Mr. Fleischer’s last film was the hit comedy, Zombieland, which also starred Miss Stone. In fact, he has pretty much made his name in the comedic realm. The transition to serious dramatic work hasn’t really been as smooth as the visuals. Evidently, based on this film, he seems to envision himself as the second coming of Brian de Palma. Gangster Squad seems to take many scenes, plot devices, and even music cues from The Untouchables, which was set in Chicago. This might explain why the sleek, glossy visual milieu and melodramatic slow-motion shots feels really out of place in a story that is so grim.  The far superior L.A. Confidential managed to navigate that same territory flawlessly without sacrificing the excitement of being in Los Angeles during that time amidst the chaos and underbelly. Of course, do not just take my word for it. The advance audience I saw it with could not stop breaking into laughter and jeers in at least six major plot points, including the climax and epilogue, as if it were a comedy. One can only assume this was unintentional.

 

In truth, despite its good intentions to be true to the time period, the film has a bouncy, corny, 50s cop show aesthetic at its core. Even the orchestral musical score by Steve Jablonsky felt strangely inappropriate for a period-piece, somehow giving the film a Hans Zimmer-esque Batman feel that it never deserves nor earns. A period film done in a postmodern style with a traditional score? The overarching sense of irony will not be lost on modern day audiences with sky-high expectations after the cinematic accomplishments of 2012. Once you see the final showdown between Mr. Penn and Mr. Brolin’s characters, you will see what I mean. This film is Hollywood melodrama at its most zany and self-effacing. However, I am a little interested to read the book that it is based upon, which I am guessing is a lot more detailed and deeper than anything I saw on the screen.

 

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Now, the question that anyone reading this is probably wondering, which scene got inserted after the DKR massacre? I really do not know for sure, I am supposing it had to have been one of the nightclub shoot-out scenes. But, like the delay itself, it really doesn’t matter. That factoid ends up not really changing the film in any other way. A disappointment is still a disappointment no matter how you re-shoot it.

 

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