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It’s almost like this wants to be a super-cop team up movie or something.

Gangster Squad is an embarrassing movie. For all the other things I can and will say about it, that’s probably the stickiest. Not only increasingly embarrassing to watch, it seems like this should be categorized as embarrassing for the actors involved, let alone the genre the movie all but parodies. From the obnoxiously clunky voice-over to the stylistic tics that never amount to anything, the most coherent impression of the movie is that it’s a cartoon of the 1940’s noir/gangster milieu. Anyone who has played L.A. Noire will probably think they’ve stumbled on some movie version of that game.

Most people will come out of Gangster Squad saying it was “entertaining” and that they “enjoyed it”. I get that. If you can get past that the movie basically sounds and feels like a first draft screenplay with five stylistically distinct directors, I can see where some enjoyment could be derived from the actors who bother to enjoy themselves, or the violence, or the limited team-up antics.

Plus, I mean, Giovanni Ribisi plays the moral center of the movie. Da fuck?

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Illegal wire-tapping is used most righteously in this movie.

One of the ways this movie is embarrassing is in its incidental endorsement of the kinds of ridiculously amoral (and illegal) practices engaged semi-openly by “law” enforcement agencies in the supposed Land of the Free. Gangster Squad is not a political movie so the contemporary lens through which it is presented makes its ignorance of its own inherent themes and implications super duper embarrassing. Put another way, this is a movie that is not very self-aware. On an entertainment level, this is obvious by how seriously it takes itself even when it is profoundly stupid or lazy or mocking the movies that inspire it by cribbing their cool for its own sake. On a cultural level, this is all another story where the kinds of policies and procedures everybody else in the world criticizes Americans for allowing are justified and normalized.

The Gangster Squad was a real thing that happened, and I think the historical context (gleefully cannibalized and then ignored like the noir tropes it borrows) is supposed to offset the problematic way these men are told to conduct their business. I’m all for vigilantes and extralegal justice in my entertainment, but the trouble here is that they are, perhaps unintentionally, just dressing up contemporary practices to hand-wave the negative implications. There’s no commentary or reflection on this that means anything. Ribisi’s character objects to some of the tactics, but his inevitable death is an obvious invalidation of his point of view while reinforcing the necessity of those tactics.

But ultimately, most people aren’t going to be too worried about these issues. While I mention them as a criticism, they aren’t really enough to sink the movie on their own. It’s easy to mount an argument that this stuff actually makes the movie more interesting (I agree, it does). But this appeal is only academic and doesn’t do anything positive for the movie anyhow.

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Sean Penn plays Cohen like he’s in a way better movie.

Because only Gosling and Penn do anything interesting with their characters, the rest of the cast of really talented and likable people just fall flat. Gosling is easily the best thing in the movie and Penn’s being surrounded by such a disharmonious movie makes his performance… well, embarrassing. He goes very big in a movie that seems to want to be big but can’t quite get there. Brolin, the ostensible lead, is as boring as you’ve ever seen him. I don’t get why he keeps doing movies like this one, he’s so fucking good. Robert Patrick feels like the biggest cartoon character of all, though he’s mostly fun. Michael Pena is criminally wasted as Patrick’s Tonto. That’s really the only acknowledgement this movie gives to the segregation and racial issues of the time, otherwise it washes all that stuff out and inserts its contemporary racial acceptance (though every main character is white) such that it feels phony, which may be worse than not including Latinos or African-Americans in the core cast at all.

Anyways, the above are the titular Gangster Squad and their mandate is to act like a counter-syndicate bent on busting up Cohen’s operations. This is where the movie stops saying “it’s like The Untouchables” and starts saying “it’s The Untouchables“. Patrick’s old-timey gunslinger is basically the Sean Connery character except even more American than even an NYC Irish beat-cop battling prohibition. Meanwhile, there are dramas like Ribisi’s half-hearted objections to the thuggish tactics (he doesn’t mind the illegal wire-tapping of course) or Brolin’s wife being with child and shit. She’s not the stereotypical cop wife who pretends like she didn’t know who she married. If anything, Mrs. O’Mara (Mirielle Enos) totally gets her husband but draws the line at his work putting her and their child’s life in danger. That’s fine. That’s actually nicely done, movie. Unfortunately, it’s too minor a part to really redeem much.

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Their chemistry works but it’s wrapped in too cliche and thin a barely-subplot.

Ryan Gosling is the best thing about this movie because he seems to be the actor best utilizing the sparse opportunities it presents. The guy’s a great actor and he does a lot with Wooters in spite of the rampant cliche of the role and character. He’s the boozy edgy cop with a heart of gold who has a hero complex and matching damsel to save. He’s an old school character that should have been the worst in the film, and is pretty much if you only count him as written. Gosling makes it work, though. He’s helped by Emma Stone, who fits into what this movie thinks it is better than pretty well anyone else. She would both pop and blend in a real noir film and I really hope she gets around to making one soon. This is the most mature role she’s had and while it isn’t much, she completely owns it and will surprise people who are inclined to think of her as another perennial teen actress.

Part of the reason why I say Gangster Squad feels like a first draft is because it is incredibly unfocused for such a straightforward movie. It’s unable to quite zero in on any of its subplots long or deep enough to make them resonate. As a result, its completely on the shoulders of the actors to make something of them and, as I’ve discussed, this largely doesn’t work out. The movie is coasting on cheap cliches that no one bothered to flesh out into something more. This is why it’s a first draft; another go at it might have revealed its weakness. The structure is all there for a good movie, even a good cartoon of the ultimate 1940’s L.A. Cop Badass Team-Up that this sometimes feels like it wants to be. Gangster Squad just never quite makes good.

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The moral “arrest rather than kill” ending is completely unearned.

Stylistically, Gangster Squad is even more distractingly unfocused. Tons of contemporary camera gimmicks are used with no consistent purpose aside from heightening the reality. Unfortunately, this comes across as simply obnoxious. Slow motion, speed-ramping, handi-cam, etc are all used in different places without grace, sense, or rhythm. This becomes the perfect example of the movie’s inexhaustible shallowness. None of this is done to enhance the movie in a specific way; it’s all there to be cool. It is an exact parallel with how noir and 40’s cop tropes are used by the movie. This is about making a version of a genre entry that is thought by committee to be more palatable to 18-30 year old men than a straightforward adaptation of the book would have been. As far as I know, people fucking love stuff like Boardwalk Empire or L.A. Confidential so it seems to me that this is a typical entertainment industry misreading of audience maturity/appetite.

Gangster Squad is not respectful of your intelligence and it basically tells you this up front. I could have saved myself the 1000 words of analysis and criticism by simply explaining how the review quote I’m using demonstrates this. Because noir films often use some kind of hard-boiled voiceover, director Ruben Fleischer must have thought that was another box to check off for shit to just throw into this movie without a second thought or any attention toward execution. In the film, Josh Brolin does all the deadpan voiceover that is really about the worst you’ve heard since the shit Ridley Scott was smart enough to cut from Blade Runner. I am not one of those people who thinks voiceover is a “crutch” or whatever, I’m a Malick fan for fuck’s sake, but there is almost no better example that I can think of to demonstrate that mentality than what is in this movie. Three times, he tells us that “every man has a badge” and this is propped up as some kind of salient expression of theme… a kind of false poetics that is meant to sum some shit up. Whether or not there is something to this idea (there isn’t), we don’t need to hear it three times like the movie is saying “you guys get it? huh?”. I mean, O’Mara even throws his goddamn badge in the ocean at the end because the costs they are too damn high or whatever. Thus, Gangster Squad confusingly skirts the line between lazy homage and parody.

You half expect a Wayans brother to show up.

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