No Names, No Badges, No Mercy
There are two ways I can write this review. The first is laced with one-sided praise from a genre fanboy who loves the era, the setting and the style. On the other hand, I could review this film as an impartial, unbiased film critic, in the interest of producing a clear and concise breakdown of what works and what doesn’t in this new release. I’ll let you decide which one I’ve opted for.
Los Angeles. 1949. New York gangster Mickey Cohen [Penn] has bribed, murdered and extorted himself a powerful foothold in the west coast’s shining ‘city of the future’. For men returning home from World War II, LA has become a depraved cesspool where crime is rife and thugs thrive on the corruption of the police department. After Sgt. John O’Mara [Brolin] singlehandedly lays waste to one of Cohen’s brothels, he is recruited by chief of police, William Parker [Nick Nolte], to form a small unit of off-the-book officers to act as guerrilla agents, smashing Cohen’s reign in Los Angeles. We are then introduced to a colleague of O’Hara’s, Sgt. Jerry Wooters [Gosling], who takes a very lax attitude to his duties but ultimately his heart is in the right place. Jerry eventually joins the squad but not before making a successful pass at Cohen’s girlfriend and ‘etiquette tutor,’ Grace Faraday [Stone]. The group have a bit of a rocky start but soon begin to make a real dent in Cohen’s operation. But the more successful their destruction becomes, the more evident this is not the work of a rival gang but the actions of the police force and Cohen devotes his whole attention to ridding himself of these interrupters of progress.
Technically speaking, the cinematography, camerawork and score all work wonders. DP Dion Beebe’s dark, digital style really staples a gritty aesthetic in which Los Angeles hums with vibrancy and excitement. Laced over that is Steve Jablonsky’s tense score, pulsing and soaring over the action and drama. The production design is also exquisite and much like LA Confidential, the whole movie is filmed to contemporary standards, rather than utilising nostalgic techniques, angles and methods. While the casting is seemingly perfect, the performances can be divided into four clear categories: Penn, Brolin, Gosling, everyone else. In a similar way to Tombstone, the central roles are so fully explored and played with that there really isn’t a lot of time to devote to the supporting cast. As such, we’re glean glimpses of great performances that breathe a little but never expanded to the degree that we really know anyone outside of the big three. Equally, the female supports are compartmentalised into smart wife, sassy dame and a sea of forgettable faces. In Gangster Squad women are delicate, innocent and usually in need of saving. Whether this was true of the time or not, it does leave the feature a little gender one-sided.
**Bit of a spoiler in the last sentence**
Gangster Squad’s biggest problem is that it follows the formula laid out in The Untouchables from start to finish with varying results. At times, this film is enigmatic, enthralling, engaging and enticing, the rest of the time it feels like it’s trying so hard to replicate the power of Brian De Palma’s 1987 masterpiece, without ever really attaining that level of exceptional prowess. In other words, if you’ve seen a handful of gangster films, you’ll be able to piece together the entire plot within the first few minutes. That’s not to say it’s not very well produced with solid performances throughout but it fails to offer audiences anything they haven’t seen before. It’s more a repackaging of a classic for the kind of cinemagoer who won’t bother with films made more than five years ago (in the same way that Avatar was effectively Dances With Wolves). Then there’s the anti-climactic ending, which is an unfortunate but unavoidable element of a story based on the exploits of Mickey Cohen. For those unfamiliar with history, the man was jailed on tax evasion and died in his sixties in prison; subsequently, no amount of plot tweaking would provide an appropriately cinematic close to this story and what we’re left with is a little disappointing.
Every ten years or so a really spectacular cop/gangster flick comes along: The Godfather, The Untouchables, LA Confidential. Is this film as good as these examples? No, of course not, I’ve just listed three of the greatest films ever made but it’s certainly of the highest calibre for its genre. It’s more like Public Enemies (the best the genre had to offer in the 2000’s), fantastic performances, lavish visuals but a little too forgettable to really make a mark on cinema history. No doubt Fleischer will receive a bit of a wailing from critics for drawing so heavily on masterworks of the past but considering this is only the director’s third release and his first attempt at a serious drama, it’s a damn impressive leap forward.
11th January 2013
The Scene To Look Out For:
**Possibly a little spoilery**
Steering away from all too familiar scenes from various other noir and pulp films over the decades, I think a particularly amusing scene to highlight is the ‘gangster squad’s’ first job, rolling over a Burbank casino owned by Cohen. Without a real plan, the five men storm in with handkerchiefs over their mouths, brandishing guns in their hands, only to discover a troupe of off-duty cops. The whole thing ends in a chaotic retreat and two of the squad are arrested. A nice little dose of reality in an erstwhile fanciful plot.
As stated above, the real heavyweight dialogue and screen time is divided between Penn, Brolin and Gosling, all of whom shine and remind us of their sheer excellence. But that much is obvious so highlighting it again seems a bit moot. Instead, I should draw your attention to Sullivan Stapleton who plays club owner, Jack Whalen. He’s only really on-screen for short periods of time but he manages to hold his own with everyone and proves himself more than capable.
“I like having only one fork.. you never make a mistake”
In A Few Words:
“Playing out as more an homage to pulp/noir greats, rather than establishing itself as one of them, Gangster Squad is a thoroughly enjoyable romp but doesn’t exactly pave new ground”