Aug 11, 2014

[Movies] Gangster Squad (2013)

I was honestly excited about this movie when I first saw the trailer. It seemed to have a rather promising cast of talent involved and it also had the sort of story that I thought I'd appreciate. Who doesn't like a good gangster movie, right? And taking the police side in things sort of echoed great movies like the Untouchables. The delayed release of the movie due to efforts not to offend folks given another shooting incident in the US at the time further pushed the movie away from memory.

I finally got to watch Gangster Squad recently, but it was far from what I had expected given the investment of talent in the movie. Despite a lot of elements that could have made for a great movie, we ended up with one that wasn't even good. And that seems such a shame for a movie that took so long to complete.

But that's the way with movies, I suppose. You can cast the same people in different movies with similar scripts and yet you can end with completely different movies because of the director or any other number of elements that go into the movie. Such is the wonder and mystery of the movie making business.

Synopsis: Gangster Squad is a 2013 noir action movie directed by Ruben Fleischer, whom might be more familiar for movies like Zombieland. The screenplay was written by Will Beall based on the "Gangster Squad unit" created by the Los Angeles Police Department during the 1940's and 1950's.

The movie begins in 1949 efforts are being made by organized crime to control Los Angeles. We're allowed to see the argument between two gangsters - Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and Jack Dragna (Jon Polito) - where Mikey argues that they shouldn't be subject to control by the East Coast mafia. At the same time, we meet Detective Sergeant John O'Mara (John Brolin) as he raids a brothel controlled by Cohen. His willingness to go against the local mobsters prompts Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) to empower O'Mara to create special unit that will work more like a military unit in terms of dealing with the mob. This is especially relevant since O'Mara was once trained for special operations during World War II.

The group is to operate without official support from the Department and they will not be carrying badges when they carry out these operations. Thus O'Mara recruits a group of rather unorthodox veterans with different skills and specialties and backgrounds. Lt. Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) is a street cob with good fighting skills. Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is a wiretap expert, Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) is a gunslinger and sharpshooter, and Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) is Kennard's partner and fellow gunslinger. The only person that O'Mara was unable to recruit is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who also has a bit of an inside track on Cohen's activities - that much he shares with O'Mara and the rest of the squad.

So on the surface, this seems like a potentially cool movie. You have a bunch of cops going outside the confines of the law to bring organized crime back in line by any means necessary. There's the potential for strong team dynamics as everyone performs their special functions or roles in order to get the various tasks done. And you even have a little seedy romance with Gosling's character being involved with the mobster's girl. A lot of cool stuff, right?

But as things started to play out and O'Mara's little band of cops were gathered, the end result was oddly drab. And as things progressed, things actually got even more boring despite the rather liberal violence here and there. I suppose one of the bigger issues in that department was the fact that said violence was typically in the form of a montage. I think I got more emotional impact from the similar scene in the Dick Tracy movie with Madonna singing "Sooner or Later". Now that was a good police montage sequence - campy, but still good.

I guess one of my bigger issues was that it never felt like they were really operating like some special operations team. If anything, they just seemed to confront the bad guys and engage in shoot outs with them. The planning wasn't all that careful and it took a while before they even thought of trying to bug the bad guys and in the end that just let to missions that consisted of shooting at them. The fact that many of the fights were reduced to montages further cheapened the effort that went into forming this team.

The romance angle between Wooters and Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) felt like it had been tacked on as an afterthought and really just served the plot more than anything else. And that's a shame as well since we know that Gosling and Stone are more than capable of some great on-screen chemistry, but that didn't really come to light here either. We are just told that they develop some sort of a relationship instead of this relationship actually coming together logically on-screen so there's actual audience buy-in.

The whole movie was just cluttered with different ideas, plot points and montages. For a strong noir piece to really work, you need great characters and the sort of slow burn mystery or narrative that is heavy on details but also nuanced enough to have careful build-up. This was torn between having an older style story and violence more appropriate to more modern action movies.

Gangster Squad wasn't the movie I had hoped for, and maybe that was due more to too many expectations that developed over the period of time between the first trailer and when the movie was actually released. It's yet another attempt to replace good story writing with a collection of big name actors in the hopes that things mesh together in the end. The movie only gets 2 sharpshooter demonstration scenes out of a possible 5.

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