Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gangster Squad Review

Gangster Squad has been a very, very long time coming.  Slated to originally release back in October 2012, a crucial scene set in a movie theater was understandably re-shot in response to the deplorable shooting that occurred during the release of The Dark Knight Rises.  Upon hearing this news I was initially peeved that the artistic integrity of the film would be compromised; in retrospect this thought was incredibly foolish, as the newly-inserted scene is effective and adds to the story nicely.  Despite all of the delays and negativity associated with the aforementioned scene, I would say that it was mostly worth the wait.

I’m not saying that the film is perfect; it isn’t by a long shot, but at its core, Gangster Squad is incredibly entertaining and features some great performances and spectacular action sequences.  Set in 1949 Los Angeles, Squad tells the story about the LAPD cops who put down their badges to take down East Coast gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and his crime empire.  Hero cop Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is tasked with putting together a team to cripple Cohen’s empire; his wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), suggests he tap officers that maybe don’t have the shiniest records, for they’re likely to be the ones who can’t be bought.  This allows for a fantastic motley crew of actors and characters, each with their own specialty. 

Conway (Giovanni Ribisi) is the tech expert, Coleman (Anthony Mackie) is a beat cop and the muscle/interrogator, Jerry (Ryan Gosling) is the #2 to John’s #1, and Max (Robert Patrick) is the gunslinger who’s rookie partner, Navidad (Michael Pena), tags along.  While each character doesn’t get that much individual screen time (meaning their characters aren’t that well fleshed-out) they all have an important role to play in the narrative and each gets at least one or two great moments.  Emma Stone’s Grace Faraday is Mickey’s girlfriend, who falls in love with Jerry, gets barely more screen time than the squad, but is great with what little she has to work with. 

A running theme, for me, that permeates the entire film is that of missed opportunities – Stone doesn’t have that much to do and considering that her character is Mickey’s girlfriend they have very few interactions over the course of the film.  The members of the squad aren’t very developed in terms of character; we know enough about them to actually care about what happens to them but not much more beyond that.  This idea spills over onto the narrative as a whole.  The film clocks in under two hours and I could have easily done with 20-30 more minutes of character and narrative development.  There is only one real example where this is glaringly obvious – Cohen figures out that the men hitting his rackets are cops and just a few scenes later we see his thugs assaulting John’s home, etc.  Just a scene or two showing us how they figured out the identities of the squad would’ve done wonders to flesh out what is already a cool story.  I just can't help but feel that the narrative was condensed and rushed; perhaps this was was due to editing associated with the aforementioned re-filmed scene.

The theme of wanting more most certainly does not come into play when dissecting Sean Penn’s "performance" of Mickey Cohen.  To say that Penn is overacting might be the understatement of the decade.  He really doesn’t bring anything to the role that we haven’t seen before – tough guy crime boss has people killed in horrific ways to prove a point.  And he growls a lot.  When you’re in a film with Nick Nolte (who I enjoy quite a bit) and your delivery is harder to understand than his…well you have a problem.  His Cohen is fairly one-note (granted, that’s more a script issue than performance-based) and lacks any sort of finesse.  His performance didn’t necessarily detract from my enjoyment of the film, but a solid villain, when played with some subtlety (even if retaining some level of over-the-topness), can do wonders for your film (see: The Dark Knight, Skyfall, and The Expendables 2). 

Aside from some good performances, what I enjoyed most about Gangster Squad are the action set pieces.  Fleischer’s camera turns, dives, and swoops in unexpected ways – there’s a thrilling car-chase sequence that is just simply gorgeous.  Slow motion is peppered throughout many of the brawls/shootouts, with the finale being the most spectacular.  I will never tire of seeing rooms get shot up in slow motion, especially when it’s with M1 Thompson submachine guns.  The way in which these sequences were shot just make them pop off the screen (and no, Squad is not in 3D).

Both Zombieland and Gangster Squad solidify my faith in Ruben Fleischer as an action filmmaker (even if these two films lack in-depth character development), and I am that much more excited for his adaptation of Spy Hunter.  While this latest effort may not live up to its potential, Squad is a very fun time with some incredible action set pieces.  For me, this is a very good start to 2013.

Gangster Squad has some drawbacks, but more than makes up for them in style and being incredibly fun.

The Bearded Bullet.

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