11 January 2013


Director Ruben Fleischer burst onto the scene in 2009 with Zombieland, a zom-com that easily surpassed any number of Shaun of the Dead knock-offs with its wicked sense of humour and distinctive aesthetic. His follow-up feature, 30 Minutes Or Less, wasn't so highly regarded, but his visual style comes back in a big way for Gangster Squad, a fictionalised re-telling of LAPD's war against East Coast mobster Mickey Cohen in the late 1940s.

Homicide cop and WW2 veteran John O'Mara is waging an insubordinate crusade against Cohen, who has most of the LAPD in his pocket, and he's constantly getting into trouble for it. Moral authoritarian Chief Parker sees potential in O'Mara's dedication to fighting crime in the city of angels, and puts him in charge of a secret squad of officers whose mission is to take the mob's empire apart by fair means or foul. This Gangster Squad wages a private war against Cohen, aware that they will never receive credit if they succeed, and that there is no one to turn to, if they should fail.

Even though this has a dream cast behind it, and a director who is clearly back on form, I had my doubts about the look of this film, judging by the trailer. The period setting and the glossy digital aesthetic put me in mind of Public Enemies, but the final result is not so jarring. Fleischer uses some of the slow-motion photography that made Zombieland so distinctive, so the look of the film feels more consistent than I had expected. Even the speed ramping, which has arguably been overused between Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and the Zack Snyder canon, serves to ameliorate any contrast between the historical setting and the way that it looks.

In terms of content, the balance is not always so happy. The film is far more violent than I had expected. Will Beall's script offers plenty of humour, or at the very least, it offers opportunities to laugh, and yet it never indulges in silliness. It clearly wants to be more like De Palma's The Untouchables, than Miller's The Spirit, but that's not a hard goal to achieve, and it feels like the film occasionally errs more on the side of seriousness than it needed to, sometimes to its own detriment. That's really not an uncommon problem in modern Hollywood cinema, but here, there's an implacable feeling that it doesn't quite sit together.

Nevertheless, that great cast helps to ensure that it's never, ever uninteresting. Josh Brolin gives another rock-solid leading man performance as O'Mara, completing his ascension from Jonah Hex, through Men In Black III (in which he was easily the best part) to a meaty role in an enjoyable popcorn movie. Elsewhere, aside from getting the best pre-mortem one-liner I've heard in ages, Sean Penn is memorable and unrecognisable in his gloriously over-the-top performance as Cohen- at times, I couldn't tell if his drastically altered look was achieved with CGI or prosthetics, but it's a job well done either way.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone recapture the searing sexual chemistry that they exhibited in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and most of the audiences who see this one will find themselves fancying one or both of them. It's a pity then, that Gosling is affecting a voice that sounds weirdly like Jesse Eisenberg, (was Fleischer missing his star from Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less lead?) and Stone has a largely underwritten part as gangster's moll Grace. Robert Patrick, Michael Peña and Giovanni Ribisi lend ample support to the ensemble, but there's no doubting that the reason why we root for Gosling and Stone's characters is because they're damn sexy, not because we really care for their underwritten roles.

Before I wrap up, I just want to observe that Gangster Squad was pushed back to its January release date, in the shadow of the July 20th shootings that took place at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The scene that was re-shot, to replace an armed assault on baddies in a cinema, fits seamlessly into the narrative, and brings a nice bit of tension at a crucial turning point in the plot. I'm not in favour of anyone panicking themselves over the location of such a random and senseless act, because that's exactly what bastards like James Holmes want, but if the original scene had been as violent as the rest of this film, the decision to delay and re-shoot was probably in the best possible taste, as well as beneficial to the story as a whole.

Gangster Squad has been called Zack Snyder's The Untouchables, and for better or worse, that's not a comparison that I would necessarily dismiss. I like Zack Snyder, and The Untouchables, and in the week that has properly kicked off awards season, it's nice to see a well-acted, if not entirely unpredictable crime thriller that isn't so bally-hooed. There are silly aspects amongst the serious, like Ryan Gosling's voice and Nick Nolte's grizzling, but these don't detract overall. It's certainly nothing special, but it's a solidly entertaining ensemble piece that serves as a welcome escape from delayed Oscar darlings and dumping-ground studio fodder.

Gangster Squad is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Gangster Squad
, why not share your comments below? 
It's worth your time, if Crying And Fighting: The Musical isn't your cup of tea.
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch. 

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