Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Movie Review: "Gangster Squad" (2013)

LA Inconsequential

Whether or not you like this movie depends heavily on your expectations.  If you're looking for actual, serious (neo-)noir or mob action, you won't find it.  If you want a bit of colorfully pulpy disposable genre entertainment dolled up as a vintage fashion show with shootouts, then you just might have come to the right place.

The reviews have largely been hostile, so when I went to see Gangster Squad with a friend, I wasn't expecting very much.  All I wanted - let's be honest - was lots of pretty art direction and 1940s fashion and Ryan Gosling in a fedora.  I was actually pleasantly surprised.  Gangster Squad isn't LA Confidential or The Untouchables by any stretch of the imagination, but now that I'm really thinking about it, maybe it wasn't meant to be.  Director Ruben Fleischer had previously done 2009's Zombieland as an amusing riff on the zombie apocalypse genre, and now I'm beginning to wonder if Gangster Squad isn't such an arch, deadpan riff on the mobster genre that the joke sailed right past almost everybody.  It cranks up every genre trope to 11, and just about every trope is in here in one form or another.  I'm wondering now if Fleischer isn't satirizing our expectations by fulfilling them as preposterously (and gleefully so) as possible. He's also clearly having a ball creating his hyperactive, engagingly eye-candyish version of 1949 Los Angeles. Carmen Miranda shows up, people. Carmen Miranda!  And her legendary fruit-filled tower of a headdress almost merits its own appearance in the credits.

The premise is straightforward enough: Mob boss Mickey Cohen (played with loopy gusto by a maniacally frothing, scenery-chewing Sean Penn) is building his crime empire in Los Angeles, and LAPD's Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, almost unbelievably heroic) has been tasked with stopping him.  O'Mara recruits a handful of men willing to get their hands dirty in order to fight the mob, and we're off to the races.

A lot of critics have complained that the movie is "too violent."  OK, what does this mean, exactly?  It's a movie about cops and gangsters.  I'm expecting violence, and loads of it.  There are a couple scenes of gangster-on-gangster nastiness that will have the squeamish averting their eyes, but I frankly didn't think it was out of place in a flick that had clearly chosen to do things in as cheerfully an "over-the-top" fashion as possible. Violence?  You want totally unchained genre violence?  Go watch Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez.

In terms of characterization, though, Gangster Squad is problematically underwritten.  Everybody looks absolutely fabulous in their vintage wardrobe (how could they not?), but so much more could have been done with the individual characters to give them depth as multi-dimensional people. Just look at the names on the cast list: Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick, Emma Stone.  Great actors, but their potential was barely tapped at all, though at least Mackie gets in a few good lines and Emma has the closest thing to a character arc.  This flick could have been so much more than it is.

Mad Minerva gives this film a grade of B.  Admittedly, Ryan Gosling in vintage menswear would give this flick a passing grade just for including such a beautiful creature in such gorgeous outfits.  Alessandra, on seeing the flick, commented, "This isn't the best movie that Ryan Gosling's acted in ... but I have to say that he's a beautiful man." True dat. (I can't help but quote one critic describing his Jerry Wooters as "a Tolkien elf vacationing as a noir sidekick.")  You gents out there may appreciate Emma in some lovely outfits of her own. Observe:

I love that retro aesthetic, so I'm inclined to be forgiving because the art direction is so good in its stylized glossiness.  Besides, in terms of underperforming gangster flicks, Gangster Squad was much more fun than Public Enemies - largely, I think, because it had no pretensions of greatness. 

RottenTomatoes gives Gangster Squad a rotten rating of 33%.

The official website is here.

Gangster Squad runs for 113 minutes and is rated R for lots of violence, some language, and a bit of discreet nudity.

Here's the trailer:


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