Gangster Squad (2013)

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Somebody up there at Warner Bros. must have realised that Gangster Squad, a cops-and-crooks story set in Los Angeles in the late Forties, is a terrible movie, despite its stellar cast. So they’ve released it in Hollywood’s dump-the-rubbish month of January, when people are more interested in the Oscar nominations. Ironically, Gangster Squad is inferior to the usual Dump Season movies. Those are often gritty, interesting stuff, maybe directed by Joe Carnahan or starring Mark Wahlberg. I think of the interesting exercise in soulful machismo, John Singleton’s 2005 Four Brothers, with Wahlberg (who’s worked for James Gray) and up-and-coming star Garrett Hedlund — though that didn’t really come out in January, it might have done. These movies have impoverished risk-takers, maybe with families under duress, compromised cops, male bonding, over-complicated plots. January-release examples are Safe House, Contraband, or The Gray; Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog — all January releases. There may also be interesting examples of darkness like Ralph Fiennes’ film version of Shakspeare’s Coriolanus — the holiday season is over; it’s winter; why try to be cheerful? But Gangster Squad is a nearly total loss. It’s just a lot of costumes, cars, cigarettes, guns, and noise. What’s wrong with this expensive piece of costume jewellery is that it’s not really a January movie at all: it was postponed after the Newtown elementary school massacre.

We could use an over-complicated plot in Gangster Squad, where an LA police chief called Parker (Nick Nolte) gets a brave but off beat WWII vet cop, Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a combat-style team to bring down a new local crime kingpin from New York, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), leaving aside their badges, hiding their identities, and willfully breaking the law. The trappings and look and action are more like a comic book than a movie: not like a movie adaptation of the comics, like the Marvel superhero ones, but just like a comic book. The dialogue is simplistic and dumb, the action is heavy-handed, and the plot — worst failing of all — lacks suspense or character development.

All this merely cheapens our memory of similar but better material and films, without taking the time to delve into the gritty B-movie authenticity of a January-released crime movie like Joe Carnahan’s debut Narc. Fleischer, whose debut was the not-bad humourous horror pastiche Zombieland, seems to be going for grander stuff, and in doing so he misses out on the authenticity a smaller film might achieve. He has Sean Penn, playing a gangster kingpin. His $60M production budget was enough to buy him lots of Forties cars, zoot suits, night clubs with fancy Carmen-Miranda floor shows, and machine guns and flying objects galore. This milieu and action reminds us of Raymond Chandler —  or James Elroy, whose dark and convoluted vision gave us Curtis Hanson’s award-winning Elroy adaptation LA Confidential ; or for vintage Afro-American noir, we may remember Carl Franklin’s Walter Moseley adpatation, Devil in a Blue Dress. When Gangster Squad takes us to Forties LA’s Chinatown for its climactic sequence, we can’t help thinking of the greatest neo-noir of them all, Polanski’s film of that same name, and the irony is terrible.

But for something more similar — about a Forties gangster hunt — we need only go back to 2009 for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, to see how starkly Fleisher’s effort is outclassed in its field. It really does not suffice to have suits and dames and tommy guns. Or to have actors like Penn, Brolin, Gosling, Nolte, Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovani Ribisi, Michael Peña and the rest, who’re not “wasted,” exactly; they just lack the inestimable advantage of being in a good movie.

Everyone is a quick cartoonish stereotype, and they do it with voices and mannerisms. Nolte has a froglike croak. Penn shoots out phrases in a threatening bark; somehow he is unimpressive, his kingpin status established only by fancy clothes, bodyguards, and pretty women. One of these is Emma Stone, who’s dated by Ryan Gosling, a Squad member and fellow vet who’s natty too, a Casanova who likes to flick his Zippo, talking tough but in the light squeaky voice of his Mickey Mouse Club days. While in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love Emma Stone proclaimed his torso “Photoshopped.”  Here his face looks Photoshopped too. Everyone seems to have an artificial digital coating, like a Hollywood tan. All these actors have done much better work.

Mickey Cohen was a real Forties Jewish Mafia bodyguard from New York who rose to boss status in LA and who, like here, ran floral shops, paint stores, nightclubs, casinos, gas stations and more. He was a fancy dresser and was linked with Johnny Stompanato, who in turn was linked with Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, and Ava Gardner. But there’s nothing in the history about a lawless cop unit assigned to bring his operations down and run him out of town. And this invention takes only limited purchase, because the screenplay by Will Beall from a book by Paul Lieberman just strings together generic dialogue scenes (enlivened by some Forties slang) with generic armed encounters, all of which are okay to watch but don’t add up to a compelling plot. Avoid.

Gangster Squad released in the UK 10 Jan. and the US 11 Jan. 2013.

DIRECTOR: RUBEN FLEISCHER
WRITERS: WILL BEALL, PAUL LIEBERMAN (BOOK)
STARS: SEAN PENN, RYAN GOSLING, EMMA STONE, JOSH BROLIN, ANTHONY MACKIE, GIOVANNI RIBISI, ROBERT PATRICK, MICHAEL PENA
RUNTIME: 113 MIN
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

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