By Mark Saldana
Rating: 2.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Gangster movies have come a long way since Paul Muni portrayed the title character in Howard Hawks’ Scarface and James Cagney chewed scenery aplenty in The Public Enemy and White Heat. In fact, those classic crime stories play out somewhat cartoonishly after Frances Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese made their impacts on the genre. Still, it definitely is fun to revisit these old school movies simply because of their entertainment value. I, personally, prefer the more realistic approach employed by Coppola and Scorsese, though. Their films had a more profound effect on my cinematic experience as they emerged from my generation. So it is with mixed feelings that I review a film which embraces the former style and all of its affectations and idiosyncrasies. Though it does make for an entertaining trip to the theater, it does take away from some of the gravity and efficacy such a story now typically carries.
In the 1940s and 50s, crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has a plan to take over all of the illegal business in Los Angeles. During this ambitious undertaking, Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) decides to send Cohen and his associates a crystal clear message, that their east coast criminal element is not wanted there, and that they will fight, tooth and nail, to put them out of commission. Parker presents Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) with the challenge of assembling a group of clean cops willing to take up this task, by any means necessary. Sgt. O’Mara recruits Officers Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and the reluctant Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) for this difficult and violent assignment.
Director Ruben Fleischer’s (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) film gets so carried away with its style and presentation that the real heart of the story gets a bit lost in all of its noir and gangster posturing. The whole feel of the movie plays out like a pulp comic come to life, but often feels like everyone is trying too hard to stay in this mode. The cliché script by Will Beall, based on Paul Lieberman’s book, has all the typical and expected elements one would expect from an old school gangster movie. The early failures by the good guys, the successful montage, the over-the-top angry response by the villain, and the violent and ugly fallout that results are all there. The thing I did appreciate, though, is that Fleischer doesn’t sugar coat the violence. He does attempt to balance the cartoonish style with violent realism somewhat. He just doesn’t always succeed.
The cast all perform in the manner expected by a director embracing an old school manner of crime storytelling. Ryan Gosling definitely hams it up as a badass, smooth talking, noir-style cop. He obviously has fun with this role and most audiences should be able to share in his enjoyment. Sean Penn, with his goofy make-up, has free reign here to chew up, devour, and regurgitate the scenery and is an absolute hoot to watch. The most earnest character in the movie, appropriately and deservedly gets the most earnest performance in the movie. Josh Brolin, the determined and driven cop, offers the most genuine acting in the movie. His character is the least caricaturesque and feels like a real, flesh and blood person, as opposed to a noir cliché.
In a word, cliché really describes my main gripe with this movie. Fleischer and Beall, in their desire to bring an old school gangster movie to new generations, really needed to better develop the more reality based elements to counter-balance the stylistic posturing. A film which does this really well is 1987’s The Untouchables by director Brian De Palma. It is all too obvious that Fleischer and Beall drew heavily from this awesome gangster film which still holds up nicely today. My recommendation is to rent this movie first, if one hasn’t already seen it or hasn’t seen it recently, then go catch Gangster Squad as a matinee. Either that, or just wait until both are available for rental and make it a double feature at home.