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Movie Review: Despite Its Problems, GANGSTER SQUAD Is an Enjoyable Diversion

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My biggest sticking point with Ruben Fleischer’s junky-but-not-unenjoyable action thriller Gangster Squad is the title.  Gangster Squad.  Here’s the thing: I don’t doubt that, in real life, this L.A.-based crime unit didn’t go by the same moniker (though the film deviates from reality in so many instances that you could have renamed it Justice League and retained the same level of historical accuracy), except that when you call a movie “Anything Squad,” the expectation is that your primary focus will be the squad itself.  In one way, Gangster Squad honors that focus.  The team is the most important element; it motivates the many shooting/beatings/stabbings that occur in just under two hours.

But in another way, the picture comes up short.  Of the different members in the six-man team – Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michael Peña – we really only get to know two of them: Brolin’s lantern-jawed squad leader John O’Mara (someone get this man a Dick Tracy remake, stat!) and Gosling’s sad-eyed killing machine Jerry Wooters.  And because this is a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, I’m using “get to know” quite liberally.  O’Mara is an utterly incorruptible bruiser, and he relies on his pregnant wife (“The Killing’s” Mireille Enos, who brings genuine spark and grit to an otherwise stock part) to keep him grounded.  Gosling is a self-loathing womanizer – so, nothing like his character in Crazy Stupid Love – who redeems himself a) through the love of a good woman (Emma Stone) and b) through the self-less example that O’Mara sets.

I get it.  Brolin’s the film’s nominal hero, so he should get a lot of screen time (it’d be like Ocean’s Eleven if George Clooney made his first appearance ten minutes before the ending), and Gosling…look at him!  He’s a movie star, fer Chrissakes, and like Paul Rudd in Anchorman, Gosling is always up to something to make his character more interesting: speaking in an accent that’s half-Marlon Brando and half-Mike Tyson, mumbling little asides to himself after he’s finished his scripted dialogue, playfully roughhousing with one of his cast-mates on the peripheries of the frame.

Problem is, the actors playing the rest of the squad are just as interesting/compelling as Brolin and Gosling, and you can boil their parts down to even more reductive narratives.  Patrick’s a no-B.S. gunhand.  Mackie’s a beat cop who’s good with a knife.  Ribisi’s the nerdy surveillance expert and family man.  Peña’s Patrick’s (lot of apostrophes there) green partner (mind the alliteration, too).  That’s.  About.  It.  You get the sense that Fleischer worried any more screen time with them would take time away from their war on venal gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), so it’s pared-down and out-of-the-way, all the way.  Mackie’s most dynamic moment finds him chasing a perp through the skylight of a slum tenement, but you won’t find it in the film – this vivid action beat got relegated to the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray.

I’m not saying every character needs to be as full and round as Travis Bickle (okay, bad example), but…let’s return to the Ocean’s Eleven example for a minute.  That movie has eleven main characters (thirteen, if you count Andy Garcia and Julia Roberts, and really: why wouldn’t you?), yet it never feels like the George Clooney and Brad Pitt show: you walk away from that one feeling like you know everybody, from Matt Damon’s idealistic conman to Eddie Jemison’s neurotic tech geek.  Bonus points for the Clooney Crew – at 116 minutes, it packs in all those extra character beats into a runtime only four minutes longer than Gangster Squad’s.

And the time that we don’t spend with the four other guys goes to Emma Stone and Sean Penn, both of whom are…problematic, to say the least.  This is Stone’s least interesting performance; it isn’t that she’s bad, but she barely gets anything to do.  She’s a hot cipher, and she barely has any chemistry with Gosling, which is weird, considering how palpable they were as an on-screen couple in the otherwise execrable Crazy Stupid Love.

Penn, though?  He’s terrible.  Forget the fact that he looks nothing like Mickey Cohen (although I found it hilarious that he thought it prudent to adopt a ridiculous nose prosthetic while doing nothing else to modify the, oh, 800 hundred or so other parts of him that don’t resemble Cohen, like he thought the one detail would tie the whole performance together); this is a role of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  He’s clearly trying to emulate Robert De Niro’s volcanic turn as Al Capone in The Untouchables, but whereas Capone’s explosions of violence were terrifying because they were so unpredictable – Capone was genial and accommodating, right up to the point that he’d smash in your head with a baseball bat – Penn plays everything at the same shrill roar.  It’s a wearying, uncomfortable bit of business, and it makes you appreciate the subtlety that guys like Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney brought to their histrionic villains.

All of that makes it seem like I didn’t like Gangster Squad.  Not true.  While it’s no L.A. Confidential or Chinatown, it’s markedly better than Michael Mann’s aimless, unsatisfying Public Enemies.  Ruben Fleischer may not have topped his debut feature – the great Zombieland – but he understands that at the end of the day, if you can entertain your audience, then you’ve done your job, and that’s what he’s done here.  We might miss character detail at the expense of action, but it’s pretty great action, thrillingly shot and captured through cinematographer Dion Beebe’s digital eye.

The film might be derivative (it oh-so-badly wants to be The Untouchables, right down to the similarities between Ribisi here and Charles Martin Smith’s nebbish in that earlier picture); it might lack a certain internal coherence (we’re in the pre-cell-phone era that is 1940s Los Angeles, and still characters magically know where people they don’t know will be at any given time); it might waste Nick Nolte in another “Prod the bear and film him growling” turn as LAPD Chief William Parker; but it moves fast and never stops dancing.  That’s got to count for something, right?

Warner’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy looks and sounds terrific.  Beebe shot Gangster Squad on digital with an interesting, comic-book-smeary patina, and the HD picture faithfully replicates the look.  As you might guess, this is a pretty loud movie (Tommy-Gun sounds being what they are and all), but the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track clearly delineates between dialogue and gunfire.

Supplements are surprisingly robust.  In addition to the audio commentary from Ruben Fleischer, we get the PiP “Gangland Files” viewing mode (much of which you can also watch as fifteen individual Focus Point featurettes); seven deleted scenes, which include Mackie’s big moment; a “Rogues Gallery” episode on Mickey Cohen; a featurette about the film’s locations; and the “Tough Guys with Style” video.

It isn’t L.A. Confidential (or Chinatown or White Heat or Who Framed Roger Rabbit or…you get the point), but it’ll do.

Gangster Squad is available on Blu-ray Combo pack, DVD and Digital Download on 4/23.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.