Friday, January 11, 2013

In Theaters: GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Ruben Fleischer.  Written by Will Beall.  Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, Mireille Enos, Sullivan Stapleton, Holt McCallany, Troy Garity, Jon Polito, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Josh Pence. (R, 111 mins)

Delayed by several months for reshoots after removing a sequence involving a shootout in a movie theater out of respect for the victims of the Aurora, CO shootings at a midnight showing of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES last summer, GANGSTER SQUAD finds itself in the big-studio dumping ground of early January.  Adapted from Paul Lieberman's non-fiction chronicle of covert cops taking on the mob in post-war L.A., the film, written by Will Beale (CASTLE), and directed by Ruben Fleischer (ZOMBIELAND), is sufficiently entertaining in a brainless kind of way, but it feels lacking, like it could've--and should've--been more.  Fleischer, with two comedies to his credit (he also made 10 MINUTES OR LESS), might not have been the best choice to direct, as the film has a sometimes awkward time straddling the line between serious and camp and never coming down on either side.  It threatens to become a spoof on several occasions, and not all of the actors seem to be on the same page with what the project should be.

When ruthless east-coast mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, whose fake nose is currently the frontrunner for 2014's Best Supporting Actor Oscar) takes over the L.A. crime scene with a good chunk of the cops and judges in his pocket, frustrated police chief Parker (a grumblier-than-usual Nick Nolte) talks honest but hot-headed detective and war hero John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) into organizing a secret, off-the-books team of elite cops to take down Cohen's empire by any means necessary.  Still shattered by his experiences in WWII, O'Mara is now only at home in combat-type situations, which immediately brands him an outsider with the powers that be at the L.A.P.D.  Likewise, he assembles, with the help of his devoted and pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos of TV's THE KILLING), a ragtag team of misfit cops for whom the rules are optional:  reckless ladies' man Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), knife-throwing beat cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), wily old cowboy Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), methodical surveillance man Conway Keeler (a surprisingly calm Giovanni Ribisi), and eager Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), who joins essentially because Kennard vouches for him and no one else wants to be partnered with him because of his ethnicity.

GANGSTER SQUAD is never dull and, from the standpoint of its production design, looks terrific.  The problem is that the film's tone is just all over the place, both in terms of script and style. Several action sequences, particularly a car chase, are dampened by the modern--and entirely too ubiquitous--reliance on blur-inducing shaky-cam and too much CGI (the explosions in this film are embarrassing).  Performance-wise, Brolin plays it completely straight and is very good as the driven, obsessed O'Mara, but Gosling never seems comfortable in this period setting, and his glib, flippant character doesn't seem like a 1949 type.  The other members of the Gangster Squad don't really get much room to shine but Patrick seems to enjoy playing a grizzled, big-moustachioed old-school lawman who never really blended in with the fancy ways of the big city.  The show-stealer, however, is a completely over-the-top, borderline grotesque Penn, who plays Cohen as a foaming-at-the-mouth madman who's introduced having an underling's hands and feet tied to the bumpers of two cars facing opposite directions and subsequently ripped in half.  Penn is one of cinema's great actors, but he's rarely cut loose and hammed it up to this degree (even his Spicoli from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH wasn't played this broadly).  Penn has clearly been instructed to turn it up to 11 and play to the back rows, and he's obviously having a blast.  But therein lies the conundrum of GANGSTER SQUAD:  Penn is entertaining as hell here, but his performance is so much that he's more funny than threatening.  The three leads don't seem to be acting in the same movie:  Brolin acts like he's in the next L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, Penn acts like he's in a live-action Looney Tunes, and Gosling acts like he's arriving fashionably late for a gangster-themed GQ spread.  And poor Emma Stone, charming as usual, is stuck with a woefully underwritten character as Grace, Cohen's reluctant moll who, naturally, falls for Jerry, which also reunites the two actors from 2011's CRAZY STUPID LOVE.

GANGSTER SQUAD borrows elements from several better films, from the underrated MULHOLLAND FALLS (1996) to the great L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), but most of all, it seems especially indebted to Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), in its premise, some vaguely Morricone-esque music cues, the chief villain having an ominously creepy right-hand man (Troy Garity's one-eyed Wrevock is a bland stand-in for Billy Drago's Frank Nitti), and a finale that shares a few visual elements (minus a runaway stroller), like a long set of steps.  There's a great story to be told here but, in the hands of Fleischer, it struggles to find a consistent tone and feels at times like it's an adaptation of a lighthearted graphic novel instead of a true crime account as Beale's script leaves no cliche unused (approximately how many badges do you suppose are at the bottoms of lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water, hurled in disgust by disillusioned cops fed up with the criminal-coddling system?).  By no means is GANGSTER SQUAD a bad film and it's very often an entertaining one.  But it's also an uneven and sometimes frustratingly empty one that seems content to cruise by, squandering its potential to sit alongside the films it's so openly emulating.

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