Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Only Thing That Stops A Bad Guy With A Gun Is A Good Guy With A Gun

Reel To Reel: Gangster Squad

Going Rate: Worth matinee price or rental
Starring: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic intense machine-gun violence and mob executions, strong language, attempted rape

The mob has failed to do any decent business in Los Angeles since the 1940's, and based-on-true-events Gangster Squad argues it's largely because of a team of ruthless police officers working off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush -- except when they're blowing the heck out of everything. Indeed, Gangster Squad wants to be another L.A. Confidential or The Untouchables. Those two films had style, class, and characters we cared about. This one has a lot of style, a lot of firepower, and little else.

Mickey Cohen (Penn) is building a criminal empire in the post-war City of Angels. He's got the dope hustle and the girls for sale. Now he's looking to own bookmaking, and there's apparently nobody he can't bribe or kill. He's got a token girl, Grace (Stone), because every gangster needs a girl.

Along comes Sgt. John O'Mara (Brolin), the prototypical One Good Cop who can't be bought. Battle-hardened from World War II, he likes going to war against criminals because he does it well. It doesn't sit well with his wife, but just a few moments later in another scene, there she is helping him pick out members of a gangster wrecking crew. Sgt. O'Mara gets the go-ahead from L.A.P.D.'s police chief (Nolte) to bust up Cohen's operation by nearly any means necessary, which means burning, shooting and blowing up lots of things is okay, but simply taking Cohen out is not enough.

Sarge's wife tells him to think outside the elite cops on the force, so we get a cast of characters: the urban cop Coleman (Anthony Mackie), cowboy sharpshooter Max (Robert Patrick), sidekick Natividad (Michael Peña), and wire wizard Conway (Giovanni Riblisi) along with O'Mara's sergeant buddy Jerry (Gosling), who happens to be involved with Grace -- ta-DAH!

The film barely gives us time to get to know its characters. Penn can be menacing, but he can also jump off the cliff into "dese, dem, and dose" gangster parody. With six people on O'Mara's team, that's a lot of people to keep track of. The Untouchables realized a team of four was enough and gave each member a clearly defined purpose.

Even though it pauses to let us take in the flavor of 1940's L.A., the picture wanders from one shootout to the next. In what's becoming movie cliche, scenes of intense gunfire or burning are slowed down because it's somehow supposed to make them more stylish. Even a scene of the squad roughing up a mob goon is overchoreographed for art's sake. And once again, the Law of Movie Weapons is in force: that is, the bad guys with the automatic weapons who shoot the most bullets will have the lousiest aim compared to the good guys with the revolvers and shotguns who hit whatever they point at.

Gangster Squad is coming out barely a month after the Newtown school shootings, and I wonder if that's contributing to some of its negative reviews. The film is already dealing with lousy timing and art imitating life: its release date was pushed back from September to allow the cast and crew to replace a scene depicting a shooting inside a movie theater. In fact, the film's trailer with a clip of that scene hit the screen in the Aurora, Colorado theater shortly before the gunfire began. As I go to blog, pic is doing decent B.O., but we shall see if it has legs despite the crix nix.

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