Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Gangster Squad or: The Untouchables Do LA

"C'mon Josh. I'll do my De Niro if you give us a cuddle."

The Untouchables Do Los Angeles
. That's what Gangster Squad is in a nutshell, and I say that without a hint of exaggeration. A hard-ass monster mob boss played by an Oscar-Winning giant of the cinema giant tightens his stranglehold on a decaying city and is taken down by a rag-tag group of misfits led by an idealistic honest cop. Along the way, families are attacked, the brainiac gets killed, and the mobster does a throat-destroying amount of yelling. Sound familiar? Of course it does!

To his credit, Ruben 'Zombieland' Fleischer's take on the gangster movie provides all the eardrum shattering shoot-outs, be-suited men in hats, and the montages of jazz music and violence that you'd expect and probably thoroughly enjoy. Unfortunately, despite the stellar cast and eye-catching design, Gangster Squad is also riddled with cliche and ends up being the kind of flick you soon forget.

Like I said, if you've seen The Untouchables - and for that matter, just about any lawmen-take-on-the-mob film - you'll know the score An upstanding war veteran cop John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is recruited by the chief of police (Nick Nolte) to use methods of badassery outside of the police handbook to put the spanner of the law in Mickey Cohen's (Sean Penn) gangster doings. One by one, we're introduced to the rag-tag bunch of misfits chosen to bash saunter away from explosions, and who mostly never become more than one-dimensional caricatures defined by singular characteristics.

There's the black beat cop (Anthony Mackie), old Wild West quick-draw type (a sorely underused Robert Patrick), his plucky upstart hispanic sidekick (Michael Peña), the brainy intelligence/electronics expert (Giovanni Ribisi), and lastly and most charismatically, Ryan Gosling as womanising slacker-cop Jerry. Of course, Jerry soon becomes involved with Cohen's current squeeze Grace (Emma Stone), although sadly the chemistry of Crazy, Stupid, Love is never quite recreated. In any case, a intelligence-gathering montage there, a shooting practice scene there, a botched first attempt at a hold up there, and BAM - you've got yourself a crack squad of gangster interrupting law enforcement brothers. Now we just sit back and place bets on who's going to die first.

Under-developed relationship, but still very nice to look at.

It's to Gangster Squad's great benefit that the cast assembled is of the calibre that it is. While there's hardly chance for any of the characters (with the exception of Brolin and Gosling) to do any sort of growing or to actually become interesting, the core ensemble and the a handful of supporting players are certainly enjoyable to watch. They even manage to mostly rise above the gangster cliches that abound, as well as the dialogue, which at times seems to have been lifted straight from the Gangster Movie 101 handbook. Of particular note is Mireille Enos as Brolin's pregnant wife, who manages to get a fair amount of warmth from a potentially thankless role.

Gangster Squad walks a constant and very fine line between taking itself seriously, and being utterly and completely ridiculous. Sure, there are a few good one-liners, but when the film attempts to delve into the moral dilemmas of being "outside the law", it stumbles awkwardly. There's a great smattering of bullet-ridden set-pieces, but when at least one of the dramatic moments is so clichéd you literally laugh out loud, it doesn't exactly bode well for the rest of the film.

The two sides of Gangster Squad are somewhat personified by its villain, Mickey Cohen. His gangster accent alternates between "kind of normal" and "truly absurd cartoon villain". He's sinister yes, but without any redeeming features or warmth, he becomes a caricature so over-the-top that it's hard to reconcile even with the more ludicrous elements of the story. "HERE COMES SANTY CLAUS!" he yells, before mowing down Christmas decorations with a machine gun in slow motion. Why is Sean Penn here? Is it to pay for a divorce? Did he just want to ham it up and chew some scenery? You know what though? Once you get used to the ridiculous accent, he's pretty fun to watch as a screeching villainous maniac.

Here's the thing about Gangster Squad. It's incredibly predictable, it's probably instantly forgettable, and it's uneven. However, it's also a lot of fun. It's visually lush, it's surprisingly funny, it's full of blood-spurting, gun-toting violence and the solid cast makes the most of less-than three dimensional characters. It's violent, stylish and entertaining instant gratification, and you'll most likely have a good time watching it. Especially if you're a fan of Ryan Gosling.

2.5/5 (I'm being generous)

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