Saturday, January 5, 2013

'Gangster Squad' (2013) directed by Ruben Fleischer, 3rd January 2013

'Gangster Squad' is not a film to take seriously.  It's got all the trappings of a sober exploration of how organised crime can seep into every crack of a city, the drastic lengths to which a police force goes to wipe it out and the consequences for those who stand up to evil and say 'no'.  But you've seen all that rubbish before, in 'Gangster Squad' the 'big themes' are just a peg to hang an utterly bonkers story about some very silly men running around blowing stuff up in late 40s Los Angeles.  And it's brilliant, hilarious fun.

Something that first looks like it's going to follow in the footsteps of 'L.A. Confidential' actually shares more cinematic DNA with Robert Rodriguez' 'Sin City' (2005) or even Warren Beatty's 'Dick Tracy' (1990).  We open to Sean Penn as MegaGangster 'Mickey Cohen'.  He's grubbily beating the crap out of a punching bag in slow motion as slow, ponderous dialogue tells us about the nature of violence.  Every rope-like muscle squeezes and strains as he beats the bag.  It's over-the-top, ridiculous.  At this point the film hangs on a knife edge; if it's going to be this kind of cod-philosophical twaddle for two hours this is going to be rough watching.

Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen
Then, finally, Penn's face hones into view next to the punching bag.  I do a double-take, what the hell have they done to him?  He looks like a leather handbag stuffed full of snooker balls.  Penn is playing a man that's just stepped off the pages of a 4 colour pulp crime comic book.  I'd recently watched 'Cloud Atlas' which featured a lot of talented actors struggling to act their way through heavy prosthetic makeup so I was a little wary of the look, but Penn acts his pants off.  Moral complexity is left at the door, Cohen is a power-hungry, greedy, sadistic and cruel man, his monstrous personality amply mirrored in his twisted appearance.  

L.A. is danger of being utterly corrupted by this man, so who are you gonna call?  We're introduced to our hero, Sgt. John O'Mara in a sequence that ends with him brutalising some seedy gangsters who kidnap an innocent young ingenue.  He busts down the door and gets busy thwacking gangsters before saving the dame and strolling off into the sunset.  Played stonily by Josh Brolin, he's the flip side of Penn's madmen gangster, though both share pulp origins. Though Brolin doesn't have the crazy prosthetics that Penn has, his face is similarly mask-like.  He's got a lantern jaw, an old fashioned face that has obviously seen a lot of serious shit. Brolin plays him as an impregnable human statue, a veteran who is still fighting World War II in his head.  

Josh Brolin as O'Mara.  Now that's a face you can set your watch to.
The only hints we get of genuine humanity in O'Mara are the scenes with his long-suffering pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Evans).  At first you think she's going to fit into the thankless role of the disapproving wife; it's no fun playing the one who's actively trying to prevent the exciting gangster action scenes the audience is craving.  Fortunately, after some mild rumbles of disapproval, she seems to realise what kind of film she's in, and figures if her boneheaded husband is going to take down the most powerful gangster in L.A. then she's going to help him pick the best damn team for the job.

left to right - Giovanni Ribisi (the smart guy), Josh Brolin (the leader), Ryan Gosling (the sexy one), Anthony Mackie (the knife guy), Michael Pena (the kid) and Robert Patrick (the gunslinger)
And boy, what a team!  I do love a good genre flick, and I always love a good 'getting the gang together' montage, particularly when we're introduced to one awesome character actor after another.  Even better, they all have their own particular special skills.  So we meet the guy that's good with knives (Anthony Mackie), the guy that's good with guns and his hungry young sidekick (Robert Patrick and Michael Peña) and the smart one 'Giovanni Ribisi'.  We also get the reluctant one joining soon enough, the excellently named Sgt. Jerry Wooters, as played by the inestimably awesome Ryan Gosling.

Oh, Ryan Gosling.  You could be peeling potatoes and still be utterly entrancing in a way that smokes damn near everyone else off the screen.  There's just something about the way he looks at people, keeping mostly expressionless but somehow smiling beatifically with just his eyes.  It's the damndest thing.  In a film populated by wild caricatures he stands out as a recognisable human being, carrying much of the emotional heft that the film just about needs to keep us caring about our heroes.

Ryan Gosling as Wooters.....  (’-’*)
There isn't much room for women in this tale of vicious beatings and exploding cars, but the genre calls for a femme fatale and so we meet Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), girlfriend of both Mickey Cohen and Gosling's Sgt Wooter.  She's introduced slinking her way across a nightclub wearing a bright red dress.  That pretty much tells you all you need to know about her: she's trouble.  Unfortunately she never quite lives up to her femme fatale image. Stone gives a perfectly competent performance, but I like my 40s gangster molls with bite and danger rather than bewildered confusion and fear.  She's almost reduced to the status of an object for men to fight over, something the film notes, but calling attention to it doesn't quite excuse it.

The L.A. that this film takes place in is a heightened reality, a distillation of genre pictures.  The streets teem with familiar archetypes, from our leads right down to the smart-mouthed young bootblack that charmingly grifts people outside Cohen's extravagantly detailed nightclub 'Slapsy Maxie's'.  From the pools of neon light that fill the downtown areas to the gently sundappled suburbia, everything has been constructed in a way that pounds relentlessly on our sense of nostalgia created through classic films. 

Emma Stone as Grace Faraday.
Though 'Gangster Squad' has an keenly observed retro sensibility, Fleischer doesn't hesitate to use cutting edge technology to tell his story.  Stand out moments include a perfectly constructed car chase scene that uses a roving CG camera to seamlessly show us both the wider geography of the chase and the character moments taking place within each vehicle.  Another brilliant sequence involves a character walking suicidally into a nightclub with the intention of blowing away our villain.  I think it's shot using a SnorriCam rig; a camera attached to the chest of the actor.  The music becomes muffled, everything slows down a bit, we're locked onto their face as they walk forwards.  It's a short moment in the film, but stands out as a great marriage of an actor's performance and confident use of technology to elevate the moment.  The only slightly misjudged moment is a 'bullet time' sequence late in the film that goes on far too long.  It takes a lot for me to get tired of stuff exploding in beautiful slow motion, but by this point in the film you're aching for some dramatic resolution. 

'Gangster Squad' takes a lot of cues from genres other than the crime drama it overtly models itself upon.  There's strong thematic elements of the Western running through it, Robert Patrick in particular could literally walk into an 1880s saloon and you wouldn't bat an eyelid.  Slightly more subtly Western is the unshakably implicit moral divide between our heroes and villains.  It's a real white hats v black hats scenario, our leads mow down scarred, ugly looking gangsters by the dozen. 

Another slightly more unexpected influence on the film are videogames.  Once the plot gets going, the film shifts into showing us a series of set-pieces that feel an awful lot like levels from a game.  We get the obligatory stealth level, where our characters must sneak stealthily around a mansion swarming with guards, there's little minibosses to defeat that stand out purely because of their unusual choice in weapons.  This all comes to a head in the final sequences, which are shot in a way that echoes modern cover shooters like the popular 'Uncharted' or 'Gears of War' series.  More directly it quotes Rockstar's 'L.A. Noire', a comparison its hard to shake as our characters move from cover to cover, popping up to shoot gangsters pouring out of every corner of the screen.  

Saying something looks like a videogame is generally a term of derision when it comes to film criticism, but not here.  Visually the film repeatedly quotes pulp literature; the digital colour grading setting out to reproduce the covers of lurid, violent noir fiction.  If you're looking for a bloodthirsty, exploitative modern equivalent to this, then you could do a lot worse than by looking at videogames, which entertain you with a neverending stream of two-dimensional bad guys to satisfyingly mow down.  

'Gangster Squad' is a fantastic film, it's conscious of what it is and successful at what it wants to be. It's incredibly violent, but manages to be hilariously deadpan right through.  Just little shot choices leave the audience giggling at the audacity of what we're seeing.  It's a shame the film had such a torturous gestation period, (its release delayed and sequences reshot after US shootings) but the final product is an utterly compelling, thrilling experience and deserves to be a box office hit.


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