Review: Gangster Squad

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The Pitch: The Untouchables 2. In Color! With Rex Hamilton As Abraham Lincoln.

The Review: Mickey Cohen. Small time boxer, post-war crook who ran gambling in Los Angeles and a name familiar to readers of James Ellroy as part of the backdrop of ongoing crime that featured in his LA Quartet, including the big screen adaptation of L.A. Confidential some sixteen years ago. If you’re going to take anything from Gangster Squad, though, it’s best to put those preconceptions aside, as Gangster Squad is more of a three minute egg to dunk your soldiers in than a hard boiled thriller. The starting point for the movie’s problems is its choice of director: Ruben Fleischer made an impressive debut with Zombieland, which had a distinctive voice and tone but still managed to bring freshness and variety to a very well-worn genre. 30 Minutes Or Less was a little more anaemic, a collection of good moments (and a few stale ones) and some uncertainty as to what exactly Fleischer was trying to achieve. It’s the through-line of that uncertainty that proves most difficult in finding coherence in this motley crew.

Fleischer’s desire to push himself but also to experiment also shows up in the casting and the performances, which run the entirety of the spectrum from snug fit to loose-fitting knock-off. At the top end are the grizzled faces and voices that you’d expect from the genre, with Sean Penn the most effective under some mild prosthetics as Cohen himself, here portrayed as an all-powerful overlord of L.A. crime with the police in his back pocket and fingers in every pie from Burbank to the Hollywoodland sign. The other predominant grizzle comes from Nick Nolte, wandering in and out of the plot in a vaguely expository fashion. Josh Brolin is cast in the Kevin Costner earnest-but-dull role of the lead cop, investing Costner-ish levels of stoicism and blandness to his apparently Irish-American gang leader, and from there it’s a downward slope to Ryan Gosling’s weedy-voiced charmer, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi’s underdeveloped sidekicks to poor Emma Stone’s unfortunate attempt at the femme fatale caught between the weed and the hard case. The only real saving grace is Mireille Enos’s version of the Costner wife, keeping Brolin and the rest of the gang on the straight and narrow.

If the casting’s a mixed bag, it’s nothing compared to the overall tone of Gangster Squad. While it’s understandable Fleischer and scribe Will Beal (working from Paul Lieberman’s source novel) might be looking to differentiate themselves from other genre examples, the uncomfortable mix of cartoon, almost comic-book violence, virtually Keystone incompetence from the Squad as they attempt to strike at Cohen’s operation giving way to earnestness and attempts at gravitas and emotion never come close to gelling and attempts to invest the police with any kind of reasonable morality. (That wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t so clearly the intent.) The net effect is roughly equivalent to turning up to your Christmas panto and discovering that Wishy-Washy and Buttons have been armed with tommy guns, but it would probably be easier to invest in the characters at the pantomime.

The other overriding feeling of Gangster Squad is one of pastiche, but one where the satire seems to have gotten lost en route. As well as the strong Untouchables vibe, there’s a Goodfellas-style Steadicam entry into a fancy club that attempts to glamourise the Hollywood lifestyle, a scene reminiscent of L.A. Confidential where two officers make a visit to the office of a prominent establishment member and even a bizarre scene reminiscent of Terminator 2 during the climactic shoot-out, but each one feels a half-hearted throwback to the original, rather than even a decent homage. It’s a shame, particularly when Gangster Squad feels at its best when not slavishly imitating others, most notably in a car-based takedown of an inbound drugs shipment. Believability doesn’t need to be the name of the game, but half-hearted rather sums it up; if only Gangster Squad had the courage of all its convictions.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s a few LOLs which the audience seemed to appreciate and there’s one car-based takedown which works well on the big screen. However, Sean Penn’s face blown up to full size does look remarkably fake at times under the prosthetics, so it’s a mixed bag.

What about the rating? Rated 15 in the UK for strong bloody violence and very strong language. A couple of very brief moments of extreme dismemberment and the odd c-word, and the 15 rating is fair enough. Just a shame that the plotting and general standard of dialogue feel PG at best.

My cinema experience: Saw this at the Cambridge Cineworld on a Saturday afternoon. There were six tills open, all at the concessions stand, many simply there to turn people away from sold out showings of Les Miserables. My server was moving with the speed of a disinterested sloth attempting The Times Crossword, and despite being in a short queue it took me fifteen minutes to acquire a ticket. No projection problems, volume was set reasonably, and the half full audience behaved reasonably well apart from the one person on my row with his mobile on full brightness and the one person who attempted to make finger animals in the projector while the credits rolled. How very droll.

The Corridor Of UncertaintyJust under half an hour of adverts, trailers and PSA, about standard for Cineworld these days.

The Score: 5/10

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