Thursday, January 24, 2013

Gangster Squad

Manifest Density
The War for the Soul of Los Angeles (such as it is)

Ruben Fleischer's third film (after the very good Zombieland and the excremental 30 Minutes or Less) is Gangster Squad, a Hollywoodized version of the efforts by the LAPD to take down the efforts of Mickey Cohen, the lieutenant of Bugsy Siegel's Jewish mafia, who took over Siegel's interests when the mob kingpin was murdered in 1947.

If one is looking for a history lesson, one should look elsewhere.  This is a glamorized, fictionalized version of the events set in some art-deco post-war version of Los Angeles that doesn't seem to have existed anywhere except the Warner Brothers gangster films and Brian de Palma's The Untouchables, to which this film owes a great debt.  The gangsters all wear dark clothes with long coats (the better to identify them) and are all greasy and ugly, while the police are all good-looking guys in nice suits who bend the rules a bit (with the possible exception of Chief Parker, played with a gruff somnambulance by Nick Nolte, who headed up the similar "Hat Squad" in Lee Tamahori's Mulholland Falls).*

It all feels very false, from how the gangsters rarely hit anything despite the thousands of rounds shot from tommy guns, and the Gangster Squad "hit" ratio usually fares better.  The Squad (hand-picked by the leader's wife, played by Mireille Anos, for being rough-necks and not promotion-headed top-of-their-classers) consists of boss John O'Mara (who did exist, but did not run the unit) as played by Josh Brolin, Jerry Wooters (played by Ryan Gosling), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick)—a sharpshooter, Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) a surveillance/electronics expert, as well as two PC members for the 21st century audience—Anthony Mackie (so good in The Adjustment Bureau) and Michael Peña.   Their target is Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn in a make-up that makes him look like he walked out of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy), who's reputation is movie-inflated to make him seem like he's an empire-building Al Capone, rather than the cheap hood with star connections he ultimately was.

Fleischer is more interested in flash than being true to the source.  His fights are surprisingly well-staged, one shot per flying fist, but not Bourne-edited so one can easily follow it—an early fight in an elevator borrows heavily from a similar scene in a James Bond movie but actually goes places the 007 film merely used for suspense.  Once in awhile, he'll go for a Matrix-y slo-sloo-slooo-mo effect (rather than a fleeting Peckinpah image) just to make a point of something, like cartridges flying out of a machine gun, or a Christmas ornament exploding due to gunfire, but it's just slowing things down as opposed to telling a story.  Brolin's fine, nuanced even, but Gosling's McQueen-ish hipster act is wearing a little thin, and the chemistry exhibited between he and Emma Stone from Crazy, Stupid Love is completely missing here.  Mackie, Peña, and Patrick are far more engaging probably because they don't fit the established mold. 

It's entertaining, to a certain extent, but one gets the feeling, after patterns have been set that bring to mind other films, that one is being sold a bill of goods, and we are.  

The real-life Cohen was convicted of tax evasion (not murder) in 1950, serving four years.  Upon his release, he established several businesses (the ones portrayed in the film) and was again convicted of tax evasion in 1961 and released (again) in 1972.  Cohen died in his sleep in 1976.

Gangster Squad is a Rental.

The real Mickey Cohen, photographed in 1950
The real "Gangster Squad"

* Amusingly, his driver is Officer Darryl Gates (played by Josh Pence) who would be Chief from 1978 to 1992.

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