New gang crushes crime

By on January 27, 2013

Originally slated to open late last year, “Gangster Squad” finally made it to big screens this month, after scheduling re-shoots of the ending when the original climax proved to hit a little too close to home at the time it was originally supposed to be released. It originally involved a shoot-out at a movie theater, which, for obvious reasons, was understandably deemed in poor taste in light of the tragedy at Newtown. In some ways, this may have been for the best, as that sort of thing had essentially been done already to a point; notably in films about John Dillinger, such as the recent “Public Enemies,” which, as it did in real life, ends with a showdown at a theater.

Michael Peña (right) star in Reuben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, which tells the story of a special contingent of police officers who use unconventional and controversial tactics in order to capture crime boss Mickey Cohen.

Michael Peña (right) star in Reuben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, which tells the story of a special contingent of police officers who use unconventional and controversial tactics in order to capture crime boss Mickey Cohen.

I suppose what people think of the new ending is up for debate, but for the record, I thought it was pretty solid. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any other ending, beyond the whole restaging of the setting. I’m guessing they probably just moved it elsewhere (namely a hotel) and left everything else relatively unchanged. You still get to see a big showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, and last I checked, that’s part of what we came for.

As with the Dillinger story, this one is based on a real-life group of people, in particular Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who is trying to gain a foothold in Los Angeles as the leader of the mafia’s outfit there. Standing in his way is a dedicated cop, John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who is tasked by the police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to assemble an off-the-books squad to prevent Cohen’s from gaining a foothold in LA. by any means necessary.

With the help of his savvy and very pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), he puts together a motley crew of cops with various strengths that can each serve a particular function working together as a team. The team is made up of ladies’ man and alcoholic Jerry (Ryan Gosling), strong-arm Coleman (Anthony Mackie), sharp-shooter Max (Robert Patrick) and his apprentice Navidad (Michael Pena), and tech-guy Conway (Giovanni Ribisi). Together, they chip away at the foundation of Cohen’s burgeoning operation, much to his consternation.

Needless to say, things eventually come to a head, with losses on both sides. Caught in the middle is Grace (Emma Stone), a gangster’s moll saddled with Cohen that’s sweet on Jerry, who can’t resist the challenge…or the warnings to stay away. Things are bound to get messy, and they do, until the inevitable showdown between those left standing.

So, basically what we’re dealing with is a sort of hybrid of Brian DePalma’s classic take on “The Untouchables” crossed with the equally first-rate “L.A. Confidential,” only not quite as good as either of those films. That’s not really an insult, as those films are widely considered the gold standards of this sort of genre, along with Scorsese’s and Coppola’s various masterpieces about the mob. I would say that this was better than “Lawless,” and maybe on a par with the aforementioned “Public Enemies” and “Bugsy,” but not quite as good as any of the rest by a country mile.

Basically, it’s really not anything you haven’t seen before, buoyed by some across-the-board great performances by the entire cast. I liked that Enos, who plays a part more akin to Brolin’s in the recently-renewed AMC show “The Killing” (more so in that she is also married to her job than that she’s inclined to go all shooting range on a suspect), was not only understanding of Brolin’s motives, but helps him to achieve them, all the better to keep her husband safe and make her baby has a father. She’s one tough cookie, just like she is on “The Killing.” It’s not just the standard girlfriend/wife role, you know?

Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling, also, a star in Reuben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad.

Emma Stone and Gosling have an undeniable spark together and their scenes are just sexy and playful enough to earn them a pass, but neither adds much beyond what is expected of them, which is to say, to show up and banter and look pretty. They’re stock characters, in other words. Patrick fares better in his old-school gun man persona, adding a flair and light touch that puts it in the general vicinity of something like Val Kilmer’s character in “Tombstone.” I like both Pena and Mackie, who have done far better work than they do here, notably in “End of Watch” and “The Hurt Locker,” respectively. Only Ribisi seems to fully inhabit his character to the degree that Patrick and Brolin do, to say nothing of the always-great Penn, who never ceases to turn in a solid performance no matter what he has to work with.

All in all, I’d have to say if the genre interests you, or the main cast, I would definitely check it out, but you might want to wait until the DVD comes out so that you can compare and contrast the inevitable release of the old ending with the new one. If you’re in it for Penn or Brolin, then you’ll be happy with the results, no problem, but if you’re in it for the Gos and Stone action, know that there’s a limited supply on display.

Unlike the recent “Killing Them Softly,” this one keeps the slow-motion and overtly stylized stuff to a minimum, opting for a more real-time approach for the most part, with occasional flourishes like the bit in the jail cell, where the muzzle flashes of gunfire cause the frame to freeze for a few seconds, as if we were watching still panels like you’d see in a comic. They don’t overdo it, nor take it to “Sin City”-style places, but that’s not a bad description of the proceedings- like a comic book version of a crime-themed DePalma flick. If that sounds like fun to you, then it likely will be. For those of us who expect a little more, it may leave one a bit more wanting.

To that end, I give it a soft “B”-rating. It’s not inventive enough to earn an “A,” but it’s just good enough to warrant seeing it one way or another, be it in the theater or as a rental, depending on what your interest level is. I’ve certainly seen worse, but for what it is…not too shabby.

Mark Trammell
Staff Writer

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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