Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Gangster Squad

Movies about organized crime forever remain en vogue.  Sure we love our nuts and bolts cops and robbers stories, but adding the element of the mob/mafia to the narrative is like putting the plot on a steady diet of steroids.  Whether captured from the law enforcement side or from the point-of-view of the crooked, they tend to be riveting tales of loyalty and betrayal against the backdrop of flying bullets.  If you’re a fan of this genre, then Gangster Squad is very much in your wheelhouse.  The problem here though is that if you love these types of movies, then you’ve probably seen L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables and if you’ve seen these two movies then there is absolutely no reason to see Gangster Squad.  It is a near perfect amalgamation of the two films sans any twist to differentiate itself.

The plot of Gangster Squad is set in 1940’s Los Angeles, a city where crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) holds a firm grasp on the city by way o drugs, prostitution, gambling, and guns.  Tired of citywide corruption, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) commissions war hero John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a crew of edgy but clean cops to take back the city from Cohen by any means necessary.

The packaging on this film looks solid – great cast, highly stylized visuals, and a noir-ish quality that would seem to make the movie ooze with credibility.  That director Ruben Fleischer seemingly tried to channel the vibe from L.A. Confidential is not the worst thing in the world since Confidential is one of the best of its genre.  Still, the movie never really comes together as it should.  It’s a textbook example of the sum of the parts exceeding the value of the whole.  To me this problem begins with they style and tone.  Yes, the movie is stylized, but perhaps it is overly so to the point where the gritty tone is sacrificed.  Guns and fisticuffs aside, everything feels like it’s done for show rather than an organic product of the plot. 

Another issue with the film is that it borders on camp and not in a comedic way.  The movie strives for that hard-boiled film noir feel complete with the stoic narrative voice over, but everything feels a bit too pulpy for its own good.  The sets, the rhetoric, the overacting plays more like an off-off-off-off Broadway production rather than a full length feature with an A-list cast.  At times it feels like you're watching a bunch of Hollywood stars play dress up rather than immersing themselves into a narrative and that completely shatters the reality of the film, crippling what little credibility the film maintains.

As for the work of the cast, it’s a mixed bag from top to bottom.  Josh Brolin (as leader of the Gangster Squad) shows himself well as the protagonist of the film continuing his renaissance by delivering a tough performance.  It’s not perfect, but he plays it straight and consistently delivers throughout the film despite the uneven work of his cast mates.  Also landing in the plus column is Mireille Enos as Brolin’s wife.  She does a nice job portraying a street smart woman and the physical embodiment of the personals risks Brolin’s O’Mara is willing to take to fulfill his duty.  Giovanni Ribisi rounds out the good portion of the cast with his portrayal of Officer Keeler (the brains of the outfit).  Unlike his fellow officers, his character lacks the bravado and machismo of the others and brings a sense of balance to the group.

The performances that I found most underwhelming in the film were those of Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone.  While I think Gosling is a fair actor, I fail to see this fountain of talent that so many gush about especially so when considering his last three outings (The Ides of March, Drive, and Crazy, Stupid, Love).  Of the entire cast, he is the most guilty of overacting and thus most responsible for undermining the credibility of the narrative.  As for Sean Penn, his regression into mediocrity has been a more rapid descent then the old guard in Hollywood is willing to admit.  His performances have become increasingly one dimensional as he has morphed into a caricature of himself right before our eyes.  His work in this film is lazy, unoriginal, and uninspired.  As for Emma Stone, it pains me to say this as I am a huge fan of hers, but she seems oddly out of place as the starlet in this movie.  Though she is well accomplished, her performance feels a bit green and short on the kind of emotional intelligence required to captivate the audience, thus leaving a huge void in the production.

I have spilled a lot of ink ripping this movie apart but it’s probably not as bad as I have made it sound.  The film is just entertaining enough to keep you watching until the end although probably not nearly as invested as you would be with a movie of greater merit and certainly high expectations does this film no favors.  It’s a movie; it’s make believe but you’re never able to shake that feeling from start to finish and thus this film feels like nothing more than a satisfactory way to pass two hours of your life.  Rent it.  Don’t rent it.  Either way you won’t hate yourself for it.  Just don’t expect to see anything new, fresh, or very well done lest you set yourself up for disappointment.

Standout Performance: Josh Brolin.  His O’Mara is not a particularly well written protagonist, but Brolin does a solid job of delivering the performance that the movie needs.


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