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Review: Gangster Squad

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Review: 'Gangster Squad' (2013), starring Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte, et al

[May contain slight spoilers]

Towards the end of Gangster Squad, there’s a moment where Josh Brolin’s iron-jawed, principled cop Jon O’Mara and Sean Penn’s rubber-faced mob kingpin Mickey Cohen trade punches. As Ruben Fleischer’s camera yet again spins into slow motion, the fighters are drenched by the flumes of a recently-smashed fountain. The overbearing sentiment to this scene isn’t one of absorption or tension – it’s an acknowledgement that the sequence is incredibly similar to Simon Pegg’s model village fight with Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz. Fleischer’s film has already borrowed liberally from Martin Scorsese, Alan Parker and Raymond Chandler at this point, so a little more mimicry isn’t too severe an offence.

Yet the Hot Fuzz comparison is an especially unfavourable one for Gangster Squad. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg lampooned the most high-octane entries in the buddy cop canon, yet their tongue-in-cheek take seems almost Loach-esque in its realism compared to the mannered artifice of Gangster Squad. Fleischer’s narrative might echo The Untouchables, but the end result is far closer to Dick Tracy or the splurge-gun silliness of Bugsy Malone.

It needn’t have been this way. Paul Lieberman’s source book, Tales of the Gangster Squad, told of the LAPD’s then-unprecedented attempt to scrub the mob from the streets of post-WWII Los Angeles, and Will Beall’s screenplay is concise and fast-paced.

Recruited by the hilariously-gravelly Nick Nolte (as Chief Bill Parker) to create an off-the-record task force, O’Mara (Brolin) gathers the best team he can from the few remaining clean cops within the Los Angeles Police Department. The initially hesitant womaniser Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) has his head turned by Cohen’s beautiful moll (Stone) and the accidental (read sacrificial) death of a young, shoeshine friend, and after a nervy start, the squad take aim at Cohen’s empire before his power and wealth grow too large.

Yet only Gosling, Stone and Animal Kingdom’s Sullivan Stapleton (as a mob enforcer/informant) emerge with any real credit from what should have been a can’t-miss premise. Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick’s characters are so one-dimensional that they may as well be cardboard. Meanwhile, audience members who’ve seen any police film in the last 50 years will know that once we’re introduced to the children of Giovanni Ribisi’s brainy cop, their fate is sealed. Brolin’s has the requisite masculinity yet is so taciturn we’re barely bothered when his pregnant wife is threatened by the squad’s movements.

But it’s Penn’s scenery-devouring villain who encapsulates the faults of Gangster Squad. A former boxer who’s moved east to realise his ‘destiny’ in ruling the West Coast, he’s flooded LA with "brothels, vice, blood on the streets", according to Brolin’s languid voiceover. Yet apart from a brief scene in which Cohen eats alongside the city’s great and good, we’re largely told of, rather than shown, his apparent empire of dirt. For viewers to really fear a bad guy, to want his destruction, we need to bear witness to his malice. But, smothered in prosthetics and saddled with faux-threatening phrases, Cohen’s about as terrifying as Elmer Fudd. Embellishment of a true story is one thing, but in handing Penn nonsensical dialogue like "You’re talkin’ to God, so you might as well swear to me" and surrounding his character with identikit, easily-dispatched goons, the menace of the character is undermined and the need for a gangster squad far less apparent.

There’s the rub. Fleischer and team seem so concerned with making the piece feel like a gangster thriller, that any realism, any actual peril – and audience involvement – is lost. Beall has evidently put so much effort into cramming noir soundbites into his screenplay that he neglected to make any of the characters real or especially interesting. The style (Gosling’s fans will love his numerous costume changes) and swift, slick photography feel deeply appropriate (especially in a bravura, Gosling-breakdown sequence), and the lighting means we get a nice, close look at the cut of the suits, the gunfire, the table fabric at Cohen’s club. The same definition also means an explosive Chinatown sequence has so evidently been shot on a soundstage that you expect the background to be pulled away to reveal extras eating sandwiches.

Fleischer showed superb visual confidence with his debut Zombieland, and set-pieces like a Scorsese-esque ‘success’ montage and a mesmerising car chase and a tremendous edit from a slice of mob retribution to a barbeque
will probably provide enough thrills for most audiences to be entertained, if not astonished. Generally, Gangster Squad ticks the boxes you’d expect – it looks cool, it excites and has the eye candy and breathless action requisite for a Friday night cinema trip. But it remains a missed opportunity that’s too wrapped up in the mythology and vernacular of the period to ever convincingly capture it.

2 stars


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