Gangster Squad is the type of film that you leave feeling like it should have been better, given the talented A-list cast.
It's been a tough go for Gangster Squad. First, its release was pushed back several months after the movie theater massacre in Aurora last Summer forced the film to re-shoot a key scene (as early previews of the film suggested, there was a scene where mobsters shoot up a movie theater through the screen. The scene was removed and replaced with a sequence set in Chinatown). Then as if that tragedy wasn't enough, the recent elementary school shootings at Sandy Hook finally has brought gun control and gun violence to the forefront of American consciousness, just in time for this movie to hit the screen.
And there is sure to be some backlash. Gangster Squad is a gun-lovers dream come true. Set in the late 40s and early 50s, it is based on the real-life mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and the secret strike team that was formed by the LAPD to take him down. Cohen had near-complete control of the city at the time, from politicians to cops and judges.
This version of Cohen could have been pulled straight from Dick Tracy. Penn plays him as a cartoon character, your typical screen-mob kingpin a la Tony "Scarface" Montana (Penn even gets a line, "Here comes Santa Clause!" that rivals Pacino's famous line: "Say hello to my little friend!").
But bad-ass Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) has plans for Cohen: And those plans involve destroying Cohen's criminal empire and loosening his stranglehold on Los Angeles. Recruited by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), O'Mara is put in charge of the "Gangster Squad," an off-the-books task force whose mission is to go after Cohen.
O'Mara recruits a team of fellow cops who are on the straight and narrow. The team is made up of Officer Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, hamming it up as always), the grizzled gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his Spanish side-kick Officer Ramirez (Michael Pena) and then Officer Harris (Anthony Mackie), a black cop working the worst portion of the city. Rounding out the group is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a smooth-talking, charismatic bad boy who shares O'Mara's feelings toward the criminal underworld, if not O'Mara's passion for blowing it up.
Wooters is a key component to the film and to the Squad, but his involvement complicates things due to his budding relationship with Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), Mickey Cohen's lovely etiquette coach and main squeeze.
The plot is unimportant and mostly incohesive and there are several questionable developments. But none of that matters really. It's all about guns, guns, guns. Tommy guns, rifles, pistols, you name it, they all get fine, shining moments in Gangster Squad. In fact, this film is not for the squeamish and contains some intense scenes of graphic violence, evident in the opening scenes.
As crime noir though, it works quite well. Characters talk in that slick 40s style we're used to in classic films of the era and little time is spent on asking why. There is simply a bad guy and a good guy. Go shoot 'em up.
This results in a lot of violent fun. Of course, given the current climate in our nation, this may not come across as fun at all, for many.
As the film comes across as pro-guns, it also contains some suggestive anti-religious undertones. There is an alarming, symbolic scene late in the film during a key shoot-out, when Mickey Cohen and Sgt. O'Mara quite literally kill Christmas. As they shoot Tommy guns at one another in a hotel lobby, a Christmas tree, presents, and set-up are annihilated by gun-fire. This is when Penn drops the "Say hello to Santa Clause!" line. Could this be a thinly-veiled metaphor? You figure it out what the hell I may be suggesting once you see it.
By all means, Gangster Squad is not a political film per se, although I have a feeling that it will be made into one. Here I am, reviewing this movie, a movie that I found to be mostly harmless, mindless entertainment, yet still I relate it to the Aurora and Sandy Hook tragedies. It's impossible not to. But being released so close to the Sandy Hook massacre and having been in the news in relation to the Aurora shooting, Gangster Squad, I'm afraid, is destined to go down as a movie released at the worst possible time, evoking the worst possible set of emotions needed to enjoy it.
There is a lot not to like about Gangster Squad and it is a far cry from a good film. But in a simpler time where gun consciousness wasn't at the forefront of most American minds, this film may have been considered entertaining escapism fantasy. Now, it simply represents a sore topic. It's hard to stand behind a film glorifying gun violence at a time like this. At least that's what I feel the response will be.
Luckily, the film's mediocre script and uneven pace help in panning it, politics aside. It wants to be The Untouchables but doesn't hold a candle to most other movies of the genre. Maybe I'm over-thinking the audience's reaction. But for me, this film came at a time that made it impossible to fully enjoy.
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time: 1 hours 53 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie
Written by Will Beall, from Paul Lieberman's book, Gangster Squad
Directed by Ruben Fleischer (30 Minutes or Less, Zombieland)
Opens locally on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 (check for show times).
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