Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gangster Squalor

Movie Review: Gangster Squad

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Reviewed: 7 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- *

Gangster Squad tries to bring strong actors like Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, and Sean Penn together to form a cohesive story about post World War Two Hollywood, when an unofficial task force of LAPD created by the Chief (Nolte) attempts to disrupt palooka-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen's (Penn) stranglehold over the city and possibly the West Coast. However, any way that you turn it, the task force represents vigilantism, shooting up nightclubs, burning money, killing men in the streets, and not using the infrastructure of justice at all. Brolin's hero is too clean cut, never conflicted about the dirty work these cops must do. Gosling's loner has a vaguely defined relationship with Cohen's moll (Emma Stone), heightening the tension in theory. In general, it reminded me of another movie, a better movie.

Probably in my cinematic timeline, The Untouchables is the first film that Gangster Squad reminded me of watching. Brian DePalma's bloody, stylish take on Elliot Ness's dismantling of Al Capone offered some dynamite performances, memorable moments, and some scenes of upsetting terror. Robert DeNiro wielding a baseball bat. The poor accountant guy. Sean Connery's comeuppance. With a strong visual sense, The Untouchables shows a disparate group of crime fighters (Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, Sean Connery, etc...) united in the quest to topple the ultimate representation of evil. That film acknowledges the stakes in a far better way as the cops become hunted themselves and face moral questions in their pursuit of justice.

L.A. Confidential depicts the exact same time period (Late 1940's LA) with panache and much better performances. In that film, cops Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey straddle the line of corruption and righteousness, battling crooked cops and gangsters in an uneasy alliance of egos. They are also tasked with creating an unofficial task force to rid the city of crime, and it plays better in that film from 1997.

Gangster Squad has some shoot-outs and some violent scenes, though some sequences devolve into needless slow-motion, exploding Christmas ornaments, and excessive style. Penn seems nearly indecipherable under a mound of make-up as Cohen, spouting nonsensical lines and sacrificing his guys needlessly, and the final fight seems completely superfluous. It is a film that never requires you to think very much and never truly addresses its own characters' moral dilemmas. Nolte's chief creates a renegade vigilante task force that kills dozens of criminals and never has to justify itself. The world is stupidly simple in this film. As an introduction to this kind of film, Gangster Squad offers little and does not linger. Seek out the far superior L.A. Confidential or The Untouchables. At least Gangster Squad made me think of those enjoyable films. I cannot wait to re-watch them.

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