Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gangster Squad

In Gangster Squad, director Ruben Fleischer's noir wannabe send up of the gangster genre that was once the bread and butter of distributor Warner Bros., Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, a nefarious mob leader.  Played with a twitchy menace, with an over-the-top bombast that all but begs to be called into comparison with Al Pacino's manic screeching in Scarface, Penn utilizes all his actorly grace notes into a gleeful cartoonish creation.  As a sadistic overload with all intent of taking over 1940s Los Angeles, his Cohen is something straight out of Dick Tracy, with an all knowing wrinkle and tongue in cheek nod so unreserved and mannered he may as well be twirling a mustache and patting a black cat as he cuts into his dialogue.  He's clearly having a ball, acting without a net nor the slightest bit of directorial cues, which may have been fine if the film surrounding this display of showmanship, had settled on a tone or a cue of it's own.  The film, written by former cop Will Beall, instead wants to have it both ways-- at once a cartoon full of the cacophony of machine gun blitzes along with a L.A. Confidential-lite morality tale of corruption all set in the glamor of high-end showbiz window dressings.  Without a net of its own, Gangster Squad turns silly and sour, and as a true disservice to any cartoon entertainment, becomes, seemingly against all odds, dull.

The film was originally set for release last September but was pulled out of respect to the horrific tragedy in Aurora, Colorado due to its excessive violence and a first cut sequence of a melee taking place inside a movie theater.  Reshot and retooled for our convenience, it likely wouldn't have mattered much of a lick since Gangster Squad leaves only the slightest bit of a taste, edging into near irrelevance as quickly as its unraveling.  Fleischer, director of horror comedy Zombieland, certainly has a flair, but not the resolve to coalesce Gangster Squad into a film that matters.

Our hero, Sgt. John O'Mara (played by Josh Brolin, with an indignant seriousness) is portrayed as one of the few honest cops of the LAPD, circa 1949.  Under corruption in a town ruled by Cohen's nefarious efforts, O'Mara is obsessed with bringing him down, going so far as seeking guerrilla-like missions.  The smidgeon of a backstory is provided in that he's a WWII vet, perhaps still looming to bring down the big bad even as the war as past, as his pregnant wife and quaint lifestyle isn't enough to settle his adrenaline.  Another war vet is viewed at first as amusing counterpoint in the freewheeling Sgt. Jerry Wooters (played by Ryan Gosling in a twee accent and introduced as comedic jig), whose withdrawn nonchalance to the excessive violence is only sparked after he hooks up with Cohen's gal Grace (Emma Stone-- a tad too nice and girl next door-ish for a gangster's moll) and finds himself as well as she in apparent danger.

In a riff on nearly every B-action movie of the 80s, a team is secretly assembled-- headed by O'Mara in an effort to take on Cohen and his gang and make Los Angeles safe again.   This golden era A-Team includes a tech expert (Giovanni Ribisi), a gun-slinging novelty (Robert Patrick), his immigrant protege (Michael Pena) and the always welcome Anthony Mackie, for, well the movie doesn't quite explain.  The squad goes to great (and needlessly violent) measures, encompassing the films silliest problem as the good guy team starts to question their efforts and ponder if their actions are any better than the real villains.  That matters little as both detectives and gangsters are saddled with such a pedestrian script that makes all parties seem relatively dim, each discovering clues as screenplay dictates in what shrewd investigators or bad guys should realize long before.  Without insight or scope or dimension, the actors are all seemingly left to their own devices, and it's true that the alpha cast all appears to be a different films, left directionless by Fleischer to delight in their own disparate actorly delights.

At least the films looks good in its ridiculousness, as cinematographer Dion Beebe (no stranger to theatrical eye candy, as evident by his Oscar-winning lensing of Memoirs of a Geisha or to astute LA-driven crime dramas, as in Collateral) lustfully and colorfully brings bits of zest and texture to the surface only film.  Same is said to the artful production designers and costumers who stage old school elegance and fun set pieces with an aplomb that's missing from the page.  Sadly, even as mere window dressing, Gangster Squad can't quite quell its own insipidness, as it nears parody towards its predictably bloody and uninvolving conclusion.  D

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