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Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Going Gangster To Get A Gangster In 1949 L.A.
Giovanni Ribisi, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Robert
Patrick in "Gangster Squad", directed by Ruben Fleischer.
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Overblown and underfed, "Gangster Squad", a dishonest comic-book meathead drama, rushes
its wobbly script and scant material to the finish line. Ruben Fleischer
directs his actors on an aesthetically glossy and opulent landscape, and they overperform
so as to overcompensate for the film's severe limitations. Set in post-war 1949
Los Angeles, "Gangster Squad", inspired by
a true story -- often the first sign of trouble for a film -- tries to focus on
the L.A.P.D.'s covert efforts to sabotage, subvert and ultimately shutdown
notorious gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) in the City Of Angels.
Mickey Cohen was a champion boxer in his day, but tells people he doesn't use
his fists anymore. Made-up to the hilt in prosthetics, Mr. Penn chews
through the scenery as best he can, putting a weak, tonally disorganized film on
his shoulders. "You're talking to God, so you might as well swear to me,"
Mickey says, before a henchman meets an untimely demise. Cohen, a New York
gangster hell bent on making enemies in the mob world and expanding his criminal
empire to Los Angeles and Chicago, isn't interested in Grace (Emma Stone), the
sultry lady on his arm. It's all decoration. He barely acknowledges
Grace as she tells him she needs to go and powder her nose. Grace is an
object not of distraction but convenience.
Before this, there's WWII vet and L.A. police Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin)
narrating the film on and off with lines that make out L.A.'s "protect and
serve" police to be a hallowed group of cowboys. Daryl Gates (the
notorious L.A. police chief) is mentioned too, and his name will fly over some
audience members' heads. What's notable about "Gangster Squad" is that it
does more to underscore the emergence of the rogue, brutal officers who would
pervade the ranks of the LAPD for decades to come than it does to emphasize the
vanquishing of gangsterism or the gangster element that Mr. Cohen signified.
There's irony in that realization, but far worse are lines in "Gangster Squad" that are
absolutely laughable, with Mr. Brolin's character narrating his reverence for
the LAPD, as a shot of a shining, gleaming police badge is shown. (Mr.
Brolin was arrested by Santa Monica P.D. on New Year's Day.) This scene is a
bygone moment, one strangely trapped in a time warp for the police corruption of 1949,
let alone 1991 (Rodney King), 1997-98 (Rampart scandal), or 2013.
I think the filmmakers of "Gangster Squad" are far smarter than their finished
product shows. Screenwriter Will Beall should have taken even more time to
develop the characters, who are cardboard cutouts. There are just two
women in the film -- one a moll (Mr. Stone), the other a pregnant housewife (Mireille
Enos). Those are the ends of the spectrum. Neither woman has a
degree of nuance or insight to contribute. None of the characters
do. Repeated, cheap racial punchline uses of a Mexican cop (Michael Peña)
and a Burbank-hating black officer (Anthony Mackie) grow old and tiresome very
quickly. Nick Nolte appears as the L.A. police commissioner, gruffly
barking pronouncements and lines from a poorly dialogued script. (Mr.
Nolte starred in "Mulholland Falls" in the mid-1990s, a film more or less about
the very same subject matter: rogue LA cops in the 1950s protecting their turf
against the criminal element.)
The bottom line is that the shallow material they work with here is far beneath all of the
actors' abilities. There's no edge, heart or soul in "Gangster Squad".
No Jimmy Cagney, and no "White Heat" -- a classic it tries to evoke.
Mr. Fleischer's film, based on Paul Lieberman's book Gangster Squad,
plays on allure, glorification and gratuitous violence that all further underscore its
hollowness. The movie is conflicted about violence as it tries to push it
(given its obvious title) but pull it too, with staid lines about not wanting
kids to grow up in a violent world. Lawmen saying hello to death.
Then a fade to black. Then back to the gunplay. It looks too
artificial, too haphazard. The problem is that the director wants to eat
his cake and keep it on display at the same time, and the film's manic shape-shifting
is the result.
"Gangster Squad" romanticizes its heavy gun violence (four months after the
film's initial release was postponed in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado shootings and
three weeks after the Newtown, Connecticut massacre.) Yet the film isn't even effective
enough to make us feel anything more than anesthetized. At some points
though I was cringing, both at the proximity of the violence from last month's
school shooting and at the awkward changes in the characters, particularly Sgt.
Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a seemingly laconic character who suddenly isn't,
then is again. Mr. Gosling gets to reunite with Ms. Stone, and their
bedroom chemistry from
"crazy, stupid, love." doesn't miss a beat. The
rest of "Gangster Squad" however, misses everything.
Mr. Penn, who played an overzealous LAPD cop in "Colors" in the 1980s, gives
"Gangster Squad" the lone bit of interest it advertises as its
principal villain, but alas, the interest is ephemeral. I was torn between
laughing at Mr. Penn's game efforts and feeling sorry for him. What should
have been a showy role, one ordinarily a departure for such a serious and committed actor, is instead a cartoonish
display reminiscent of Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice in "Dick Tracy". Still,
when Mr. Penn isn't onscreen "Gangster Squad" is sleepy, sloppy and stupefying.
It's too bad. Mr. Cohen was a fascinating and interesting persona, and Mr.
Fleischer and company should have invested in building the film around him and
exploring his life more thoroughly.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I become: "Gangster Squad" should
be renamed "Gangster Squat", for it sits down for two hours and lays the biggest
of big ones on its audience. The saving grace is that the film's styling
is so clean and pristine that the expected rank odor is aired out. The
film acts as if its outsized droppings don't stink, but boy, do they ever.
Sad to say it, but "Gangster Squad" is a one-dimensional piece of filth and
pretense, best seen, if at all, as a matinee, or an effective sleeping aid.
"You can't shoot me, you're a cop." Give me a break.
Also with: Robert Patrick.
"Gangster Squad" opened last Friday across the U.S. and Canada. The film is rated
R by the
Motion Picture Association Of America for strong violence and language. The film's running time is
one hour and
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