18 January 2013

Review: Gangster Squad

(Dir: Ruben Fleischer, 2013)

I sat watching Gangster Squad with a curious smile on my face. Now that smile is partly explained by it being a decent and fun film, but the reason it was a "curious" smile is down to feeling like I was watching a James Ellroy story brought to life. Ellroy is my favourite author and I've gushed about his writing before (see the start of my Rampart review here), but there's something very reminiscent about his work in Gangster Squad. Admittedly it's very Ellroy-lite as it mostly lacks the unrelenting darkness or labyrinthine plotting of his stories, but the setting, presence of Mickey Cohen and of driven male characters with a strong moral code all mark striking similarities. We haven't really seen that much Ellroy on the screen so I'll happily take a lighter derivative if offered. 
It's 1949 and East Coast gangster Cohen (Sean Penn) is on his way to taking over LA. All the right people are bought so as a last resort Nick Nolte's police chief sets up an off-the-books squad to take down Cohen's operation by any means and run him out of town. Easier said than done of course. The most notable aspect of Gangster Squad is the fantastic casting. Penn is clearly in his element here. Behind some clever layers of make-up to heighten the look of a weathered and beaten ex-fighter, he stalks and rages leaving you anxious and totally transfixed. The character is presented with the requisite presence here - slightly showy and over-the-top but desperate for power, and if it's true to real life it's easy to see how he got to this position. Although when you look at pictures of the real Cohen he of course lacks the "Hollywood sheen" (Paul Guilfoyle offered a much closer likeness in L.A. Confidential).

What about the squad? Led by Josh Brolin's Sgt O'Malley, Brolin cuts a solid lead as a man driven to do what's right and make sure the LA of his dreams doesn't get corrupted beyond recognition. He's suitably commanding and has a classic look and presence that makes him feel right at home in period pieces such as this. Then of course there's Ryan Gosling's Jerry, who brings the style and cool. As ever Gosling is a joy to watch on screen and electrifies every scene he's in, particularly when he's together with Emma Stone's Grace who offers some nicely balanced depth to what might otherwise have been a typically throw away character. Plus she looks beautifully elegant. The rest of the squad; Robert Patrick's aging gunslinger and his protégé Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi's wire-tap expert family man and knife wielding Anthony Mackie are all interesting but perhaps too underdeveloped. They're developed far enough to make the story work, but as ever with characters who feel it's their duty to rip out the vile underbelly that's infecting their city, there's a lot more that could've been explored.

Gangster Squad is a stylish looking film too, successfully recreating LA in it's all end-of-the-40's glory, but at times it does feel too over-stylised and almost gives the impression that you're watching something shot on a film set. There are also a few scenes where it moves into obvious digital handheld territory which visually jars, leaving unfortunate comparisons to Public Enemies' failed visual approach. The story also could've used a bit more meat and development - the end result is fairly streamlined but there's so much more here to potentially tell. It doesn't pull its punches however and is fairly graphic at times, but is honestly all the better for this as in reality it wasn't all sharp suits, dames and perfect Hollywood glamour.

Ultimately Gangster Squad is a well put together and highly enjoyable film. You could argue that this sort of thing has been done better before in the likes of The Untouchables or start comparing it to recent(ish) noirish classics such as L.A. Confidential, but it seems futile to complain that it's inferior when it delivers on what it's trying to with solid action, a bit of comedy and such a good cast. It feels just that touch more pulpy and the better for it. And yes it may lack the weight of an Ellroy story but I'm happy that it seems to exist in the same world. With Zombieland Ruben Fleischer marked himself as a director to watch and no matter what you think of 30 Minutes Or Less (I liked it), he backs this up with Gangster Squad which is definitely worth your time.

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