Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Gangster Squad

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.  Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, January 16, 2013

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 53 minutes.  

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