Review: Gangster Squad
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 Uncertainty: Just under half an hour of adverts, trailers and PSA, about standard for Cineworld these days.
The Score: 5/10
Review: Men In Black III
The Review: When I was growing up, the likes of Tomorrow’s World on TV always fascinated with their unlikely and outlandish gadgets, like machines that could print on the outside of an egg without breaking it, shiny discs that contained a whole album’s worth of music, or small flashing pens that could erase your memory. Well, I can’t actually remember seeing neuralisers on there, but they must be real, as surely nothing else can explain how I can’t remember anything that happened in Men In Black 2? I definitely saw it, and I vaguely remember Rosario Dawson being in it, but other than that one of the most downright disappointing sequels of all time seems to have been forever expunged from my grey cells. Is the only solid argument for another sequel, so long after the second in the series, that it’s being produced in the hope people might remember it this time?
The one immutable of the series has always been the presence and the star power of Big Willie. Since rapping out the theme for the first movie, one of the world’s biggest stars has become synonymous with the MIB brand and he’s front and centre in MIB 3, so much so that this rapidly becomes his journey, his narrative and emotional arc, not least because the universe manages to forget his partner about ten minutes in. While Smith is as reliable as ever, the movie does take something of a risk by shuffling Tommy Lee Jones out early on and replacing him with Josh Brolin, but it’s a brave call and one that pays off well, Brolin’s uncanny version of an unfeasibly young K never causing you to doubt for a second that he is the pre-incarnation of the curmudgeonly Jones, and Smith and Brolin thankfully manage to capture just about the same odd couple chemistry that Smith and Jones did previously.
The reason for the body swap is time travel, an old fallback of the sci-fi genre and one that can work very well, but that can also become catastrophically confused in the wrong hands. Other than the opportunity to interact with a few historical scenarios, such as a well thought-out Andy Warhol sequence, and to see Brolin do his thing, the time travel never feels fully exploited, and also isn’t applied entirely consistently throughout the film. Men In Black also stood out for its freakish bad guy as well as its coterie of unusual aliens, and this also feels another partial success, Jermaine Clement’s bad guy generating moderate amounts of menace but feeling oddly bland at times. Emma Thompson and Alice Eve also leave little impression as the replacement for Rip Torn’s Z, written out no doubt to Torn’s real life exploits. The rest of the quality of the original, from the background alien design of Rick Baker to the jaunty Danny Elfman theme, is present, correct and reassuringly familiar.
What Men In Black 3 does lack most is big laughs. The series has never been laugh out loud funny, but there’s never more than mild chuckles raised here. But what it does lack in laughs it makes up for with an emotional core, driven out of J’s relationship with both generations of K and the plot’s success in giving their partnership a real sense of meaning lacking in both of the earlier sequels. The most enjoyment will be derived from slightly resetting your expectations, as director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen focus on the relationship and the characters, and most unexpectedly those not entirely hard of heart may even shed a little tear at the end, and even with time travel you’d have done well to see that coming. For all the rumours that the script arrived half-finished, the plot is maybe the most satisfying of the series and while you might not be longing for a fourth trip to the alien well, it might at least take you a little longer to forget this one.
Why see it at the cinema: The opening prison escape and the final Apollo 11 set-piece are both well designed and justify their place on the inside of a multiplex this summer. The cinema screen also gives you the best chance of capturing all of the tiny background details first time, including all of the celebs-who-are-really-aliens on the screens at the back.
The Score: 7/10