Saturday, January 12, 2013


Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a movie that’s, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris, less than meets the eye. This period piece gangster picture is great looking, slickly costumed and impeccably production designed. The sharp cinematography is shiny and Fleischer has a nice eye for visual compositions that’s put to good, crisp use. The color timing gives it all a vivid Fiestaware palate that’s just south of Technicolor. It’s a recreation of 1949 Los Angeles that’s less realism and more a sense of movie realism with dapper movie stars running around town speaking with a rat-a-tat cadence similar to the gunfire they set off from time to time. Unfortunately, this handsomely mounted cinematic world is wasted on a thin script by Will Beall, a document made up of leathery clichés and characterization that leans back on star presence rather than creating anything worth caring about.

The plot’s a loose elaboration on a true story that follows a squad of police officers tasked with a secret vigilante mission to dismantle gangster Mickey Cohen’s criminal operation and free L.A. of organized crime. The grizzled police chief (Nick Nolte) puts Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) in charge of this mission. The team comes together in quick montage fashion. It’s your typical collection of loose cannons, the charming youngster (Ryan Gosling), the aging gunslinger (Robert Patrick), the technical expert (Giovanni Ribisi), and the rest (Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña). I’d complain about how the script so undervalues those last two I couldn’t even explain them with a trope, but I can barely explain any these characters even with the simplest of terms. They’re all only here to look good in a suit and get into brutal shootouts with gangsters

Big bad Cohen, played by an exaggerated Sean Penn under a layer of makeup like he’s playing a Dick Tracy villain, grumbles and growls his way through the film, intimidating all he comes into contact with. We know he means bloody business when the opening scene features him drawing and quartering a Chicago rival between two automobiles, a gross moment that plays out fully in frame behind the Hollywoodland sign. This is a violent movie that quickly sets up its bad guy as very bad, as if that excuses the all out war that the gangster squad takes to him in endless sequences of destruction and death that play out in stylish, flashily filmed takes that sometimes slow into glamorizing slow motion. The squad is made up of guys that stand shoulder to shoulder in billowing trench coats and nice hats; they’re iconographically pleasing, but dramatically predictable.

Token romance brings the most dispiriting aspect of the movie’s wasteful approach to its ensemble, counting on charm alone to paper over lazy plotting and dull, routine character beats. And if anyone could do just that, you’d think it could be Emma Stone, so sparkling in every single movie in which she’s appeared. Not so here, playing Cohen’s girl who has a Gosling on the side. Although she fills her beautiful gowns with a sense of old school glamour, she can’t bring enough sparkle to spark life in predictable scenes in which she’s romantic, concerned, or in danger. Similarly misused is Mireille Enos as Brolin’s wife. She has the understandable yet all too typical scenes where the wife worries about her husband and tells him that his work’s important, but not as important as her. It’s the kind of role we’ve seen a thousand times over and here is nothing more than a blatant attempt to add rooting interest to a flat character.

All dressed up with nowhere to go, this broadly played gangster picture ends up well short of greatness, but since it’s not swinging for the fences it doesn’t quite backfire into terrible either. If anything, it’s a slight modulation away from parody, especially in a finale that ends in a laughably overwrought shootout followed by a credulity straining one-on-one fistfight. For something so stylishly handled, it’s so easily ignored as it plays, a big empty clattering homage to films far better, from similar genre revivals like De Palma’s The Untouchables all the way back to classic Warner Brothers crime pictures of the film’s time period and slightly before. (They could very well be playing a block away from any of the settings on screen here.) Fleischer is a director of great visual zing who burst onto the scene in 2009 with Zombieland, a funny genre riff that I found entertaining at the time, although I haven’t revisited it in the years since. With Gangster Squad, he has almost all the right pieces in place, but it’s a film that frustratingly resists becoming as good as it looks.

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