Gangster Squad is a total rip-off, of so very many films, but it is still a somewhat enjoyable romp through the well travelled territory of late 1940’s Los Angeles.
I when I say a rip-off I mean it. It’s not just LA Confidential or The Black Dahlia or LA Noire. It’s The Untouchables, it’s Scarface, it’s The Godfather, its Die Hard even The Matrix gets a “homage”. Gangster Squad’s big failing is that it is unable to be anything unique, and seems very much like a by-the-numbers affair for the genre and setting, taking no risks, making no bold statements. It is a fairly brainless action movie, albeit a very stylish looking one.
It has one of the more predictable plots I’ve seen in years, all the more surprising considering how this is supposed to be “based on a true story”. Micky Cohen (Sean Penn) is the vicious gangster taking control of Los Angeles with loose-cannon cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) given the task of shutting him down, by any means necessary.
Supercops assemble! They all have unique skills (The leader, the “Lancer” ladies man, the knife-fighter, the cowboy, the cowboy’s protégé, the tech guy, even a girl if you count Stone). They’re ethnically diverse enough to suit modern sensibilities while not destroying realism from the period in question. They’re all good damn cops who have been pushed too damn far and now they’re going to clean up this stinking town with bullets instead of handcuffs and yadda yadda yadda.
This is the big key flaw for Gangster Squad, the cliché and predictable nature of everything. The team start out determined but amateurish. They have to find ways to work best with each other and put earlier setbacks behind them. Gradually they get more successful (montage!), enough to become Robin Hood-type characters. Then, at the height of their success, betrayal and tragedy befalls them as the sympathetic family man, who was just about to quit the whole operation, gets killed. With sufficient motivation for one last showdown, the Squad take the villain down – using the law (and tommy guns on his associates, who aren’t so fortunate). With that, they all ride off into the sunset and happy endings.
It’s more than just that though. Brolin’s character has the tough, pregnant wife who “wants a husband, not a hero” and just wants him to come home safely. Giovanni Ribisi, The family man, is so obviously marked for death from his introduction that there is not as much tension as you would like for his murder. The cowboy (Robert Patrick) shares words of wisdom with his Mexican protégé (Michael Pena) which become crucial plot points in the finale when the cowboy dies, leaving his guns to the younger man. Penn has three separate “You have failed me for the last time” scenes, making the attempts to portray him as vicious as possible dramatically overdone. Josh Brolin can’t just take Cohen in at the end, he has to get into a fist fight with him. There’s a blood trail fake-out with the pregnant wife. The Gangsters moll (Emma Stone) falls for a cop. The devil-may-care guy (Ryan Gosling) only loses his disdain for taking on the mob when an innocent youngster dies in his arms. I’m actually surprised that the black guy (Anthony Mackie) didn’t get killed first. There’s just nothing to keep you excited here. It’s a fun little adventure, but it’s like re-reading a book.
Performance wise, everyone does fine with the roles that they have. It’s a very strong cast after all. Brolin doesn’t get to emote a lot, but you can feel the frustration from him at the way Cohen gets away with it and exuberance when the Squad undertakes their work. Gosling is pretty drab really, he’s been hyped up as better than this in my opinion, but there are occasional good moments (like him trying to convince Brolin to smarten up about the operation). Emma Stone doesn’t get much to do other than timid “dame” who falls in love with Gosling’s character amazingly fast (another real weakness, considering the centrality of that relationship. It isn’t given enough time). Maybe it was just because the trailers and TV spots aped it to death, but their flirting at the bar seemed very lame and lifeless to me. Brolin and Gosling worked well off each other at points, but with the time they had and the script they were given, I didn’t feel like they had a fair shot to work out their character arcs to the fullest extent.
Sean Penn steals the show though. While a good bit of make-up work has gone into creating the right image, he captures the visage of a manic, violent crime boss, who came from nothing and can’t limit his ambitions. Cohen is an excellent bad guy, the King of a dirt heap with delusions of standing, not afraid to get his hands bloody when he has to. He’s able to switch between reasonable and frantic very fast, with a smile that doubles as a sneer, and he brought that sense of menace that is so important for such a character.
Everyone else doesn’t really get much screentime to be anything other one note, though they at least do that much competently. Patrick is stoic, Pena is plucky, Mackie is street-smart, Ribisi is conflict, Nick Nolte (the police chief) is gruff. Since most gangster films of this variety will have more time in which to show people off, Gangster Squad is already at a disadvantage. The real negative are the various stand-out goons of Cohen’s, who get little more characterisation than an odd visual mark, like a whitened eyeball or such. Gosling trying to take that guy down especially didn’t click with me as something to actually be concerned about or emotionally invested in.
What themes Gangster Squad has are simple, but effective nonetheless. The squad is obsessed with defending the dream of a “bright, shiny future”, one that was won the hard way in World War Two and is now being perverted by the likes of Cohen. People like O’Hara bought into the dream of Los Angeles being a paradise for the returning veterans of the war, and even at the risk of his family and unborn child, he will fight to defend that dream. Such a motivation gives a more epic scope to the whole project, but probably needs more than a few misty-eyed scenes of idealistic men dreaming idealistic dreams to embed it properly. It fits with the ambiance and the setting though, of the birth of a new age being fought over in the streets of a nearly new city. “Progress” is something that both sides consider themselves to encapsulate, and Cohen’s use of the word in the final fight legitimately enrages O’Hara, a good moment. Cohen’s progress is a off the selfish, uncaring kind, the type that will leave as many people in the dirt as possible. It’s all about him his “destiny”. O’Hara’s progress is the new American Dream, of raising his fellow men and women up, from the idiotic new girl who nearly gets sold into prostitution near the start to dirty cops that he refuses to shoot down. In the end, after one last brawl, it is Cohen who is left in the dirt, having lost his empire.
The other is simple rise and fall. Cohen’s namedrops the Roman Empire early on, praising its excesses before later denouncing the “dirty” skyscraper filled cities like New York. This is Rome’s fall in gangster land, as the barbarians who don’t want Cohen’s faux-civility to take over eat away at his empire piece of piece, until one final blow kills it all off. Cohen can’t bring himself to stop his domain growing and seeking now areas to control, and such a quest ends with him losing everything. Hubris, nemesis. The simple nature of this theme ties back in to the predictable plot, but Penn’s performance is enough to make it work.
Gangster Squad tries to bring in some humour at times, the very blackest kind, and both succeeds and fails. The initial efforts of the squad are portrayed as comically incompetent, which works and adds to their continued efforts to improve and eventually come good. There was a progression there and the wacky fan had been left in the dust by the end of the movie. But it fails in other ways, like the immediate switch from a mass of blown-out brains to a raw hamburger. Gross-out humour should not be involved in a film like this; it just reduces the seriousness of the violence, rather than enhances it.
The film is well shot, though it’s taking its cues from a host of sources (the famous Goodfellas one-shot club intro for example, or Scarface’s last stand). The film opens with a great little montage of Cohen boxing, showing off his hardened muscles, which was great at presenting him and the type of man he was without any dialogue. From there, it’s the stylish and enthralling world of 1949 LA, with the crisp suits, the beautiful dresses, the neon lights, the 1/4 acre suburbia, the hats, the cigarettes, the dingy whorehouses, the curved automobiles, the tommy guns, the Colts, everything. In portraying that world and creating the feel of the setting, Gangster Squad succeeds. Stuff like the Chinatown ambush, with the crackling fireworks sounding like gunshots, worked very well, as did Cohen’s mansion, the oft-visited club, the cabin that served as the squad HQ. Set wise, this is a fine production.
Camera wise it’s mostly fine, but for a few complaints. The director, Ruben Fleischer, goes for the slow-mo option a bit too much, especially jarring during the final tommy-gun shoot-out between O’Hara and Cohen. The Christmas tree bauble being blown apart in such a shot was eye-rolling territory. That sequence also had some strange frame-rate issues, like the lens-type had been changed, creating a picture that did not meld with the scenes around it.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the occasional gore either, worst during the opening minutes when we get a front-row view of a man being pulled apart. Less is more with that kind of thing, and the shock-value of it wore off pretty fast. The rest of the film wasn’t too bad for that kind of thing I suppose, which just makes the opening execution that bit more unnecessary.
It’s an action movie, so the action scenes are important. And they are good. Brolin does good hand-to-hand work in the opening showdown with the pimp, the car chase was pretty rip-roaring (like the stielhandgrenades being included) and the final showdown in the hotel was a good finale to have, even if its channelling the lobby fight from The Matrix wholesale and ends with a bizarre fistfight. But action is action, and Gangster Squad is entertaining in that regard at least. They’re paced out well too, leaving plenty of time in-between for exposition and other stuff that has to be covered.
Music, nothing much to say. It’s just as you would expect, with the low horns, sharp piano and a smattering of contemporary radio hits. It strikes me that the type of music you should have for this kind of noire setting is the sort that you should barely be able to remember, that eases into the scene and is kept soft and low. Gangster Squad does that, but the soundtrack will not be that memorable in time to come. Bit of Inception-syndrome towards the latter part of the movie too, with more blaring horns that were really needed.
In conclusion, I can recommend Gangster Squad, but it certainly does not match up to the predecessors of the setting that have come before it. It is the kind of film that you have one helping off and never go back for seconds. It’s shallow and has no chance of leaving a lasting impression, not really. The performances are fine, especially Penn, and the action scenes keep it going, but there nothing else really to this that can’t be seen in better movies. For fans of the genre and action, recommended. Maybe not so much for everyone else.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros.).