GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)
By Michael Arruda
(THE SCENE: A ritzy jazz nightclub circa 1949. MICHAEL ARRUDA approaches a BEAUTIFUL WOMAN at the bar.)
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: So, what’s your racket?
MICHAEL ARRUDA: I’m a Bible salesman.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: You lookin’ to take me away from all this?
MA: No, ma’am. I’m just lookin’ to take you to bed.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Okay.
MA (looks at camera): This has to be a movie.
Welcome everyone to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT. I’m flying solo tonight as L.L. Soares is off on another assignment, (looks at woman at bar) but that’s okay.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: So, what are you really doing here?
MA: I’m reviewing a movie.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Anything I’d like?
MA: Maybe. Ever hear of GANGSTER SQUAD (2013), the slick-looking gangster movie starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone?
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Nope.
MA: Let me tell you about it.
It’s Los Angeles 1949, and gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is taking over the city. This doesn’t sit well with tough police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), who is frustrated that Cohen owns half the police force and judges in L.A. So, Parker privately approaches Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), and tells him he wants to establish a small unit, operating in secret and off the books, for the sole purpose of destroying the empire of Mickey Cohen.
O’Mara accepts the challenge and puts together a crack squad of police officers, including his friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). These guys have as their sole goal to make Mickey Cohen’s life a living hell, as they constantly strike at his operation with guerilla-style tactics that continually catch him off guard. But Mickey Cohen didn’t reach the top of the gangster food chain by accident, and it’s only a matter of time before he figures out who is inflicting the damage on his empire, and he sets his sights on seeking some cold-blooded revenge.
Further complicating matters is Sgt. Wooter’s girlfriend Grace Faraday ( Emma Stone) also happens to be Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze. Oops!
GANGSTER SQUAD isn’t going to win any awards for most original screenplay—its story is nothing we haven’t seen before—but it does win lots of brownie points for being extremely entertaining.
First off, the film looks great. It’s colorful, the costumes and sets are dazzling, and they bring 1949 Los Angeles to life. Sure, things look a little comic book-like, in that the film doesn’t so much aim for realism as it does for pulp.
The cast also acquits itself well. Josh Brolin makes a sturdy, solid hero as Sgt. John O’Mara.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Oh, I like Josh Brolin. He’s handsome.
MA: His O’Mara is a family man, with a pregnant wife and a nice home, but with a sense, as he describes it, of not knowing what else to do but fight after his return from the war. He’s a self-proclaimed warrior, not a thinker, and he has no issues steamrolling his way through Mickey Cohen’s empire. He’s fearless, and all the more likable for it.
This just might be my favorite Josh Brolin performance. It’s certainly his most likeable. While he was dark and intense in such films as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), JONAH HEX (2010) and TRUE GRIT (2010), here he’s much more complete and enjoyable, as he takes a heroic character and makes him his own.
Ryan Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters offsets the intensity of Brolin’s O’Mara by exuding coolness and levelheadedness throughout.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: I like Ryan Gosling. He’s sooo sexy!
MA: He’s so cool and laid back, that in one scene where he sneaks into Cohen’s mansion to place a bugging device, and Cohen and his entourage return early, he gets discovered by Grace Faraday, yet he takes the time to kiss her before making his exit.
The rest of the team is also very agreeable. Anthony Mackie, who has been in a lot of movies lately, from THE HURT LOCKER (2008) to last year’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012), is good here as Officer Coleman Harris, an officer who’s as quick with a knife as he is with a gun.
Then there’s Robert Patrick as Officer Max Kennard, the elder officer of the group, who comes off like a western gunslinger. He reminded me a lot of Lee Van Cleef, and was one of my favorite characters in the movie. In his younger days, Patrick, you might remember, played the T-1000 Terminator in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991).
Giovanni Ribisi plays the nerdy Officer Conway Keeler, the guy who’s responsible for coming up with all the tech-savvy ideas, like bugging Cohen’s home, and Michael Pena plays Kennard’s loyal right hand man, Officer Navidad Ramirez. Both these actors do nice jobs with these roles.
Emma Stone is sexy and stunning as Grace Faraday, and she makes for an effective 1940s femme fatale that would make Lauran Bacall proud.
(to Woman) Do you like Emma Stone?
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Of course.
MA: Me, too. I found her incredibly sexy in this movie.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Sexier than me?
MA: No one’s sexier than you, baby. (Looks at camera and shrugs)
In a supporting role, Sullivan Stapleton is memorable as Jerry’s friend Jack, a guy who plays both sides of the fence, and even though he’s not part of the gangster squad, he was one of my favorite characters in the film, and he enjoys a key scene late in the film where he defends Grace Faraday from Mickey Cohen and his thugs.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: I like him, too. He’s an attractive man.
MA (to bartender): Get her another of whatever it is she’s drinking, and bring one back for me too.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Should you be drinking when you’re working?
MA: Truth be told, in my case, it’ll just be a prop, a glass of soda water.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: But I get the real thing, don’t I?
MA: Nothing but the real thing for you, baby. (mouths silently at the camera: “I can’t help myself.”)
So, let’s get back to the movie.
And, of course, there’s Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Sean Penn is so tough. I can’t help but like him.
MA: You sure do like a lot of people, but in Penn’s case, I like him a lot too, and he makes Cohen a hardnosed and ambitious villain that is a worthy successor to Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. And while his make-up didn’t look as fake to me as it did in the trailer, I wish he had worn less of it and relied more on the strength of his acting performance. While the make-up wasn’t a major distraction, Penn would have been scarier without it.
There are some really cool scenes in this one. There are the obligatory gun battles and lots of explosions, and there’s also a really neat car chase scene in which director Ruben Fleischer cranks up the intensity. It’s one of the more exciting sequences in the film. Fleischer also directed ZOMBIELAND (2009), and I liked GANGSTER SQUAD just as much as that gem.
There’s also a brutal and very satisfying physical fight between Brolin and Penn at the end of the movie which really rocks.
As a whole, GANGSTER SQUAD isn’t as stylish as Brian De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), although at times, with its slow motion photography, it tries to be. The film scores higher when it’s being its own movie and not trying to imitate others.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: I loved THE UNTOUCHABLES!
MA: Let me guess, you love Kevin Costner because he’s so handsome.
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: Of course. And don’t forget Sean Connery. What a sexy man!
(SEAN CONNERY sits at bar next to BEAUTIFUL WOMAN)
CONNERY: You got that right. Anyone who says otherwise, I’ll kick him in the arse! (grabs his drink and leaves)
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN (swoons): I’m in heaven.
MA: I’m in trouble. (to Woman) So, as I was saying, about GANGSTER SQUAD?
(Woman faces him again.)
MA: There are some other drawbacks as well.
First and foremost, it’s not original in the least, and the screenplay by Will Beall, based on the book “Gangster Squad” by Paul Lieberman, while inspired by a true story, isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Bad guy owns city, cops vow to strike back, bad guy hits them even harder, and the last guy standing wins. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this formula, and the folks behind this movie do a nice job bringing it all to life, but it’s not going to lob surprises at you.
But probably the most glaring weakness of GANGSTER SQUAD is that in spite of its R rating, it’s not all that intense. It’s edited like a PG-13 movie. Sure, there’s plenty of blood and some violent scenes, but missing is the realistic human agony. The opening scene of the film is a brutal sequence where Mickey Cohen has a man tied to two cars and to send a message back to the folks in Chicago, he has the cars speed away, tearing the man’s body apart. This does happen on screen, but it’s edited so neatly to have minimal effect.
I’m not talking about the need for more gore here. I’m talking about the raw emotion of people dying. There’s very little of that in GANGSTER SQUAD. Most of what happens in the movie is neat and tidy. I would have liked it had Mickey Cohen made me feel more uncomfortable. I never really felt the ruthlessness of his character. There are plenty of opportunities for the story to take that direction, but the film chooses not to.
But overall, I liked GANGSTER SQUAD a lot. In spite of the fact that it’s not raw enough to make an honest statement about gangsters and their battles with the police, it’s a colorful, likeable production that perhaps will excite modern audiences enough to reignite the gangster movie genre.
I give it three knives.
Well, that’s it for tonight folks. Thanks for joining me, and we’ll see you again next weekend with another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.
(to WOMAN) Want to blow this popcorn stand and go back to my room?
BEAUTIFUL WOMAN (smiles): Sure.
MA (to camera): I really love Cinema Knife Fight Land!
© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda
Michael Arruda gives GANGSTER SQUAD ~ three knives!