Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cheeky Approach Makes Gangster Squad a Worthwhile Ride

The titular squad is filled with interesting actors.
On paper, Gangster Squad is a movie that’s right up my alley. It plays in the same LA-set noir sandbox as personal favorites like LA Confidential, Chinatown, and Sunset Boulevard. It’s directed by Ruben Fleischer, who, even after the misstep of 30 Minutes Or Less (check out my review here), is still a director worth watching due to the style and finesse he displayed with Zombieland. And it features a slew of talented actors – Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone and Anthony Mackie to name a few – who consistently bring their A-games.

By nuts-and-bolts description, Gangster Squad is a film I should hate. It’s utterly predictable and paint-by-the-numbers, most of the characters are one or two-trait animals at best, and it consistently indulges in nonsensical “movie moments” (like a climatic moment where the protagonist tosses his gun aside to box with the bad guy or a scene where the gunslinger throws a can in the air and keeps hitting it to prove his bona fides) that would normally get under my skin.

And yet, in practice, Gangster Squad is a movie I’m ultimately quite taken with. The key, I think, is in the eye-popping style and glib tone that make it far more Dick Tracy than LA Confidential.

It’s essentially a sensationalized cartoon noir that makes no bones about being an overt riff on Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables, liberally lifting many of the same archetypes – scenery chewing mob head, climatic shootout on steps, and a rogue unit of cops that includes a dogged leader, a sharpshooter, and a dweeby bookish type. It actually would make for a great LA companion piece to DePalma’s Chicago-set classic.

Set in 1949, the film focuses on the battle between the mob-connected Mickey Cohen (Penn) and the titular gangster squad lead by “bull in a china shop” John O’Mara (Brolin), who is introduced single-handedly taking down one of Cohen’s brothels.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling continue to showcase 
fantastic chemistry in their second pairing together.
At the film’s outset, Cohen already supplies prostitutes and drugs in LA, and is in the process of making a play to have his hands in every wire bet placed west of Chicago. He’s got most of the important cops, politicians, and judges in his pocket, excluding Chief of Police Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), who sees Cohen’s reign as enemy occupation. Impressed by O’Mara, Parker recruits the former WWII vet to assemble an off-the-books team and wage guerilla warfare on Cohen in a battle for the “soul of Los Angeles.”

At the suggestion of his crafty and very pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), John avoids recruiting top of their class cops (most of whom are likely targets to be on Cohen’s payroll), and instead assembles a rogues gallery, including a knife-wielding, black beat cop (Mackie), a wary, technology expert (Giovanni Ribisi), and an old celebrity sharpshooter  (Robert Patrick) and his rookie Latino sidekick (Michael Pena). Eventually, the disengaged Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling), who is bedding Cohen’s top moll (Emma Stone), finds his own reasons to join on as well.

The well-paced film clocks in at a lean 113 minutes, leaving little room for full-rounded characterizations. It’s just as well, because much more would seem incongruous with the tone of the piece.

Nevertheless, the principles find admirable ways into their characters. Brolin is a solid anchor, giving a mostly straight (but always interesting), performance that plays well off of his more stylized costars. Impressively equipped with a prosthetic nose and droopy eyelids, Penn is a frothing-at-the-mouth live wire, and his Cohen is a close cousin to Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro’s performances in Tracy and Untouchables.

A climatic fight scene between Sean Penn and Josh Brolin
is one of the many trite"movie moments" that Gangster 
Squad manages to get away with.
But the true scene-stealer is Gosling, whose character is a combination of his charming cad from Crazy, Stupid, Love and ferocious id from Drive. With a stylized higher octave, Gosling creates a creampuff character who is initially pure charisma, and he has a palpable chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with, particularly Brolin and Stone (with whom he also sizzled in Crazy, Stupid, Love). His Jerry is called a “lamb in wolves clothing,” but there are moments where the madness seeps through, and Jerry ultimately comes across as the most deceptively dangerous player in the ensemble.

Stone has the husky voice and right look for her part, but she's an incredibly modern presence and gets little to do beyond her well-played tête-à-têtes with Gosling. Meanwhile, Ribisi and Enos provide a certain degree of pathos and conscience, while Mackie, Patrick and Pena offer up ace comic relief.

The trailers aren’t really selling the inherent humor of the film, but they are focusing on the action, and that’s not a misleading a smoke screen as it has been in the promos for Zero Dark Thirty. There’s plenty of action throughout, and it’s all top notch, particularly a CG-enhanced car chase midway through the film. The violence is prevalent and often indulgent, particularly in the gruesome ways Cohen has people killed.

In the end, Gangster Squad is a predictable movie that pays little more than token lip service to three dimensionality and any sort of self-reflection about the methods of such a deadly task force. However, it’s all done with an eye toward making the most enjoyable movie possible, and the effort is made noteworthy by a distinctively cheeky tone and a game cast. B