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Review: Gangster Squad (2013)

January 10th, 2013
Gangster Squad fails as a "film", but it can succeed as a movie if you have the right attitude going in... sadly, you'll mostly get negativity here.

Gangster Squad fails as a “film”, but it can succeed as a movie if you have the right attitude going in… sadly, you’ll mostly get negativity here.

I’m going to keep this rather simple and short, as a negative review need not layer on too much emphasis on the awfulness that is Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad.  We’ll start with the fact that I’m not entirely certain that this was directed by just one person, because at times the movie seems to jump from genre to genre, if not from style to style.  It is a film that falls short on so many very levels, not the least of which is an utter failure of the production team and the director to present a coherent vision.

Which is not to say that there isn’t one redeeming characteristic of Gangster Squad, because there is: it is, in general, a pretty fun watch. What, say you?  Yep, if you’re in the right mindset and can overcome the shortcomings of the whole, you’ll generally enjoy the movie.  You’re not going to ever be on the edge of your seat (as you would with Argo, my runaway favorite movie of 2012) and you won’t ever connect with any of the characters (as with In the Bedroom, the 2001 drama which perfected that element), but if you go in to it with the expectation of the violence and historical accuracy of 300 and the seriousness of Leslie Nielson’s Police Squad / The Naked Gun series series, you stand a pretty good chance of enjoying it.

Read on after the jump. 

While we have the brief chance to discuss positives, lets do so.  Emma Stone (Grace Faraday) is flat out sexy and Ryan Gosling (Sgt. Jerry Wooters) could woo just about any woman in America.  Putting them together wasn’t the focus of the film, but it worked when so many things didn’t.  The actual storyline for their two characters is rather unimportant here (and isn’t terribly good), because one of the few winning scenes in the entire movie is when the two first meet and Gosling hits on Stone.

Sean Penn (Mickey Cohen) isn’t bad as the film’s villain, but, quite simply, his performance and makeup evokes too much of the 1990 Warren Beatty film Dick Tracy.  While Penn’s Cohen is far too violent for the Tracey film (which was distributed by Disney’s Buena Vista arm), the performance still feels just about as real, which is to say not at all.  Sometimes when you build up a villain too much, you destroy the facade of reality.  Compare Penn’s Cohen and Ian McShane’s Al Swearenger from Deadwood if you want a good contrast on how you can present a crime boss.  So while Penn’s performance is a solid transformation and he certainly has a few great lines and moments, it’s an off the mark target.

The one actually well done scene in the movie is the one that doesn't have a hint of violence.

The one actually well done scene in the movie is the one that doesn’t have a hint of violence.

Unfortunately, just about every other actor is completely and utterly wasted on generic or mannequin-like characters.  Josh Brolin (Sgt. John O’Mara) is meh as the unrealistic character with a singular focus, married to the utterly wasted Mireille Enos (Connie O’Mara).  Nick Nolte (Chief Bill Parker) looked to actually get sober for a role, but only had a few minutes of screen time.

Then there are the three minorities.  The first is Giovanni Ribisi (Det. Conway Keeler), who, while not an ethnic minority, is an non-masculine nerd in a world of tough guys.  He’s there less to be an actual character and more to help stem the broken levy of implausibility that hurtles throughout the movie.  Less certain is why Anthony Mackie (Det. Conway Keeler) and Michael Pena (Det. Navidad Ramirez) are there.  The best I can figure is that they wanted to be able to market the movie more effectively to minority communities because both actors are given about as much opportunity to shine as a redshirt on a Star Trek away mission.

Mackie’s Keeler, in particular, is terribly disappointing.  While he has a couple of great lines in the front half of the film, he serves no purpose and, for some reason, is made into some kind of a knife ninja.  Despite being great in so many movies, Pena is just terrible in a completely irrelevant role as Ramirez.  It’s never entirely made clear why he’s there, other than to serve as water boy and manservant to Robert Patrick’s Det. Max Kennard.  To the extent that the casting wasn’t simply an attempt to broaden the appeal and instead was supposed to provide a commentary on either racism or a visualization of the O’Mara-led team going bebeyond race, well, they failed.  Other than one throwaway line from Patrick, nowhere in the movie is racism even addressed.

And then there’s Patrick’s Kennard.  He plays something of a mix between Sam Elliott’s Virgil Earp (from 1993’s Tombstone) and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye (from 2012’s The Avengers), but he carries neither Elliott’s surliness nor Renner’s ridiculousness full bore and therefore fails.  Furthermore, the comic book nature of his character makes for further unevenness in the storyline.

So, all in all, some pretty darn good actors went to waste here.  But let’s get to the real faults of the film, and they are significant.

Physics.  I’m not talking about the Matrix-style physics violations here.  This really goes to one specific issue: no one taught the actors how to look real when they are shooting guns.  The worst violator in this is Gosling, who clearly has never fired a real gun with any heft.  Whether it was shooting a shotgun one-handed or a Tommy Gun one-handed and blindly over his head while hiding behind a post, physics were violated to ensure that there was no kickback whatsoever.  Some people don’t mind that.  After all, NBC’s Revolution TV show was a huge hit despite ridiculous physics in which landed arrows would send bodies flying, while shotguns would have little to no effect.  Yes, perhaps I obsess on this issue too much, but it just reeks of a lack of effort on the part of directors.

Marksmanship.  In the movie, everyone is a terrible, terrible shot with two exceptions.  While no one in the film can shoot better than a Stormtrooper with Princess Leia in his sights, somehow Patrick’s Kennard literally cannot miss with his six-shooter (even at long distances) and Gosling’s Wooters is surprisingly accurate when he’s firing blindly and without regard to physics.  Everyone else though?  About as solid at skeet shooting as you’d expect from Stevie Wonder.

History.  This movie is about as true to Mikey Cohen’s actual life as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is to the former President’s.  That’s all I have to say about that (except that Mikey Cohen is a really interesting figure in history and you should read up on him).

Gangster Squad ultimately fails as a film, but can succeed as a movie if you go in with the right attitude.

The band of characters assembled by Brolin’s O’Mara is a mixed bag who’s diversity of character and personality is never well harvested.

Realities of the Era.  While the race thing previously mentioned was a bizarre issue that was addressed in one line of the movie (and otherwise ignored), perhaps the one that troubled me the most was that we’re supposed to believe that gun silencers were more effective seventy years ago than they are today.  While, yes, suppressors have existed for about a century, it’s unclear why suppressors are used (in the one early scene they’re used in) and how they are far more efficient than even the most technically spiffy today.  Also, the weaponry used in general is pretty bizarre.  Then there’s the issue of every character using the Konami Code (B A) to get unlimited ammunition for their sub-machine guns.  Yeah, maybe I’m commingling ignoring social realities with gun technology, but that’s the spectrum of thoughts I have on the issue.

Taste and Storytelling.  Overall, the movie just lacks any sense of good taste and fails to weave a coherent story.  There is no grand moral lesson or effective character development.  Yes, you have a bad guy vs. a good guy and a resolution to that struggle, but there’s no movement. Furthermore, the production team reflected horrible sense of style and taste throughout.

The violence is unnecessarily gratuitous, and it just doesn’t work as well as in the detached sense of 300.  I think it’s easier to work ridiculous violence when you’re not setting your movie in not-so-recent urban America.

Further the movie shifts from standard technicolor to odd camera work in several different scenes.  Notably, there’s almost a Adam West Batman-esque “Pow-Bam” effect to a gun battle about halfway through the movie.  Then, in the film’s climax, the CGI budget gets completely poured into one Matrix style shoot-up with the highlight being a bullet exploding a Christmas ornament.

For fear of spoilers, I won’t go into the other failures of storytelling and good taste, other than to sum up by reminding you that one of the big issues here is expectation.  The movie is marketed as a gritty, splashy crime drama.  It is no such thing.  It’s a play-it-loose, ridiculous, fun-time movie that loses its way every once in a while.  Go in with that attitude and just to have fun and you’ll probably have a good time (hopefully while not getting as peeved as I did with all the holes in the movie).  Just, for the love of all things good, don’t go in expecting a true film when all you’re getting is a video game style movie.

In fact, that’s probably how best to reflect on Gangster Squad.  These days, when you see a trailer on television, you sometimes are inspired to guess whether the trailer is for a movie or a video game.  This movie probably is a little too “Max Payne” for its own good.  But if you go in with that in mind, you can have some fun and avoid the carpal tunnel syndrome from hitting the B button too much.

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