Monday, January 14, 2013

Gangster Squad

The new film Gangster Squad should have worked, given its premise and its surface qualities. The cast is great: Sean Penn as Los Angeles mob leader Mickey Cohen; Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, and Giovanni Ribisi as the police who attempt to take him down by any means necessary; Emma Stone and Mireille Enos as concerned love interests of two of the sergeants. Director Ruben Fleischer helmed the inventive and entertaining Zombieland, and he might have done wonders with a big budget recreation of 1949 L.A. with mobsters and rogue police. Instead, the film feels hollow and ugly.

The several seconds of expository back-story for Brolin’s and Gosling’s characters about their fighting in WWII does nothing to build character, let alone serve as any sort of commentary on violence and honor. There is a lot of violence in this movie, more than any other element that might be remotely compelling, such as characters or dialogue, but it’s unfocused and shallow – it’s all gloss, there’s no real consequence beyond the acts themselves. Compare this to how another current release, Django Unchained, uses violence: Quentin Tarantino’s film is far more graphic and even more motivated by acts of violence, but there’s weight to it – the audience is forced to confront the horrors of slavery and the means by which the title character tries to save his wife. Or, to use the most recent superior example of period piece Los Angeles noire, consider the violence in 1997’s L.A. Confidential: it is used relatively sparingly and actually speaks to character when employed. In Gangster Squad, the violence is constant and brutish, but without suggesting the characters are brutish – it's little more than a slick version of boys playing cops and robbers. It’s the “this could be cool” school of filmmaking, without investigating what actually makes better films cool.

The film is not without its merits, but not enough to recommend anything more than having the edited-for-television version running in the background on some chore-filled day in a few years. Stone and Enos are the saving graces in the testosterone battleground, actually investing some soul into their limited characters. The cinematography by Dion Beebe, except for a few ill-advised slow motion and computer-enhanced sequences, is rather gorgeous, with the last shot being particularly inventive and beautiful. The production design and costumes are excellent. However, these elements end up leaving the viewer wanting the film as a whole to be much better. Nearly everybody in the cast and crew will move on to much better, and you should follow their lead.

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