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film -> Gangster Squad Review

Gangster Squad Review

Epic Potential Narrowly Misses Mark

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Gangster Squad could have been better.  That being the case, it is still entertaining and a good way to kill a few hours (especially if you’re a Ryan Gosling admirer).  Perhaps I expected too much from this film, but as a lover of cinema and the crime/gangster genre, the film never amounted to the grandiose and epic sense that the trailers conveyed.  Of course there are gritty shootouts and flashy car chases like in every gangster movie (and that’s not a spoiler unless you’ve never seen or heard of the gangster genre), but for a film with an amazing cast and rich source material, the film never really builds momentum as it progresses.  I hadn’t watched Sean Penn in a studio film in years and it wasn’t the sweeping epic in which I hoped to see him return.

A montage plays each time the opportunity for a memorable scene happens.  Sgt. O’Mara’s (Josh Brolin) opening and closing monologues feel unnecessary, and the film relies too heavily on that opening narration instead of simply showing the audience what’s at stake.  Sean Penn is a talented actor creating no need for O’Mara to tell you he’s bad — Penn’s performance as real-life gangster Mickey Cohen is chilling without O’Mara telling you that he’s the bad guy.

The actors never really get a chance to explore their characters beyond one dimension stereotypes. Brolin is the good guy standing for truth, justice and the American way. Penn is the bad guy who wants to run the city, Ryan Gosling is a professional ladykiller who finally falls for the right girl, Emma Stone is pretty and in danger, Robert Patrick is a good shot despite his old age and Mireille Enos doesn’t want her husband killed. Worst of all is that a great character actor like Michael Pena has a character whose only contribution to the squad is that he has Mexican heritage. Clearly, the filmmakers behind this film didn’t account for his performances in Crash, End of Watch or World Trade Center.

In fact, the most interesting characters had screen time cut short.  Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) had good reason to join the “Gangster Squad,” and an interesting introduction to the film which hinted at a dark back-story.  The aspects making his character interesting are never explored beyond his introduction.  Along the same lines is Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), who at first seems to fit the “necessary-brain-to-level-the-brawn” type whose sole purpose is make the gadgets eventually becomes a moral compass of the group while raising ethical questions.  However, Keeler’s ethical dilemma takes a back seat to Brolin’s O’Mara who constantly takes control.

My largest issue with the film is forcing the city of Los Angeles as a character instead of letting that process occur naturally.  If this film turns into a drinking game, take a shot every time a character says “Los Angeles,” and you’ll fall on the floor after the first act.  The mise-en-scene including L.A. landmarks were enough of a reminder instead of Mickey Cohen and Sgt. O’Mara mentioning it every two minutes. (For those who go see the film after reading this review, keep in mind that I saw it in a theater in Burbank. You’ll appreciate the humor).  Director Ruben Fleischer keeps the audience firmly grounded in L.A. without the need of its constant mention.  If the film had taken the Heat approach to L.A., the subtlety would have been greatly appreciated.

Despite all this negativity, I managed to have fun, too.  Who doesn’t love gangster movies with shootouts and car chases — especially when they take place in 1940s Hollywood?  Watching Ryan Gosling play a smooth-talker is always entertaining even if it’s the only dimension to which his character was reduced in the script, and seeing him schmooze with Emma Stone again for the first time since Crazy, Stupid, Love is an added bonus.  Sean Penn makes the most out of being the bad guy.  Most of all, I loved simply seeing a big, talented ensemble cast in one movie.  There are classic actors like Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Nick Nolte.  There are the world-class movie stars like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  Excellent character actors like Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi round out the cast.

What I appreciated the most out of the film was the slight tint creating the appearance of old Hollywood.  L.A. Confidential also takes place in 40s Los Angeles, and Fleischer did a commendable job to not make Gangster Squad a version of it. While many may call this a cliché technique, I thought it added a certain old-school touch to cement the viewers in the 1940s. 

I had been looking forward to this film all of 2012, but the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, caused the filmmakers to reshoot certain scenes depicting a shootout in a movie theater so as not to remind viewers of those tragic events in an untimely fashion.  Reshooting and rewriting certain scenes with a time/ release date crunch was classy move, and Gangster Squad should be commended at least that much.

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