Michael C here to kick off the year with my first review of 2013 for a movie I noticed had slipped through the cracks in the rush of Oscar Nomination Fever. But surely 2013 will get better than this!
Gangster Squad is a film haunted by the ghosts of its superior cinematic ancestors. Some films gain resonance from evoking earlier titles in their genre but Ruben Fleischer’s crime saga is such a creative void that it can’t wrestle the audience’s attention away from the specters of film noir past. So much more rewarding to occupy one’s mind with fond memories of Chinatown, than to watch characters we don’t care about exchange gunfire in action scenes we can’t follow for reasons not worth understanding.
The most obvious film intruding on Gangster Squad (2013) is The Untouchables (1987) - at times the new film borders on a beat-for-beat retelling of the earlier story with Al Capone switched out for Mickey Cohen... [more]
The film focuses on efforts to halt Cohen (Sean Penn, doing what he can) in his total takeover of 1949-era Los Angeles. Cohen has the legal system in his pocket, so Josh Brolin’s last honest cop steps outside the law to assemble a crack team of misfit officers in order to wage direct war against the mobster.
The Untouchables is no masterpiece, but after Gangster Squad I was left with a newfound appreciation for Brian De Palma’s earlier prohibition tale which has Mamet’s punchy dialogue, Ennio Morricone’s sweeping music and a terrific star turn from Sean Connery to recommend it. Also, when DePalma echoes an earlier cinematic landmark, as he did with his homage to Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa steps shootout, he does it with a gusto that honors the source material.
All Gangster Squad manages to do is to pose its all-star cast in cinematographer Dion Beebe’s gauzy turquoise glow as they alternate between exchanging bullets and ancient crime movie clichés. The screenplay occasionally trips over an idea or two on the way to the next incoherent shootout but it never seems to notice. Fleischer's film finds no dramatic conflict at all with the ethics of abandoning due process to get results. The bad guys are bad and if stopping them means the good guys need to roam the streets indiscriminately spraying machine gun fire and staging impromptu executions, then what’s the problem? Hip hip hooray for the men in the white hats.
Elsewhere Ryan Gosling romances one of Cohen's girls, played by Emma Stone, in a subplot that recalls the Basinger/Crowe romance from LA Confidential in a way that does the new film no favors. After generating so many sparks in Crazy Stupid Love the pair this time couldn't have less chemistry than if they were brother and sister in real life. Stone in particular is utterly sunk by lines like "Where have you been all my miserable life?"
The elephant in the room with Gangster Squad is the fact that it was pushed back from a September release due to an ill-timed scene involving a massacre in a movie theater. I suppose there is some conclusion to be drawn from the film’s consequence-free depiction of gun violence where the good guys can open fire in crowds without hitting bystanders and receive bullet wounds that don’t slow them down for an instant, but really, it’s not worth dragging a substantive discussion down to the level of this schlock. Gangster Squad's non-stop rain of bullets doesn’t signify much more than a total lack of imagination on the part of the filmmakers. There’s not even any discernable strategy to the shootouts. The good guys just run right at the crooks the way little kids run at each other while making finger guns and yelling, “Pow! Pow! Pow! I got you! Fall down!”
When faced with a clunker like this, the only thing left to do is to pick through the wreck to see if anything of value that can be salvaged. On that level, I was intrigued by the Gosling performance. Most of the other actors play their cardboard character more or less straight, but not Gosling. Left to play a snappy charmer with lines devoid of snap or charm, he compensates by cranking up the mannerisms and odd rhythms in an attempt to simulate a compelling character where none exists. It borders on glib self-parody in this context but I found it to be an admirable, almost Walken-like inability to be dull. The tension between his matinee idol looks, and his allergy to being anything approaching a typical leading man, recalls an early Johnny Depp. Gosling is still fascinating to watch.
So from Gangster Squad I gleaned a meditation on the charisma of one our biggest new stars and a reminder that it’s been way too long since I re-watched LA Confidential. You are better off skipping right to LA Confidential or a better Gosling film. Pretty much any other Gosling film qualifies. D