By Laurie Coker
Gangster Squad C+
Zero Dark Thirty A-
With time running away from me, yet again, I’ve decided to review two films in one this week. Zero Dark Thirty and Gangster Squad. Both star exceptional, versatile actors and both entertain – one more for the overblown almost comic book feel, the other for its shear intensity. Zero Dark Thirty, starring Jessica Chastain made its way to my top ten list, just after I posted the original, but Gangster Squad, while wonderfully acted, plays too much like a Dick Tracy comic strip, with perhaps even less substance, to make it a serious contender for my list.
While I should feel bad that I am combining two such diverse films, I see no other option given my timeframe. Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow, tells the story of the hunt for and ultimate killing of Osama Bin Laden, the world’s more sought after and elusive terrorist. Based on facts and eye witness testimony, we follow CIA operative Maya, as she obsessively searches for the man responsible for bringing down the towers on 911, among other terrors. The cast here is a fine one, and we are privy to inside details and truths, some eventually revealed publicly and others not, of efforts behind the scenes pitfalls, efforts to get informants to talk, and to finally discover the whereabouts of Bin Laden and bring him down.
Bigelow masters intensity and detail. While Zero Dark Thirty might have been cut by twenty to thirty minutes in runtime, Bigelow manages to engage with rich characters (as penned by Mark Boal) and intriguing, gripping suspense. Chastain impresses completely. Hers is a young woman bent on bringing Bin Laden down, often bucking the system and doggedly pushing higher-ups to give the go. While she certainly shines, the film’s supporting cast, including Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton and Harold Perrineau meshes well. Most intriguing, however, is the story behind the search, the spy game and all its impressive and at times ineffective, high-tech gadgets and the emotional, human, as well as political obstacles. Like Affleck’s Argo, Zero Dark Thirty reminds us of the efforts behind the scenes, the horrors of war and the terrors that still exist.
Surprisingly, the Academy passed Bigelow and for the most part, her film, over for Oscar nods. I contend, while wholly different than the award winning Hurt Locker, she and Boal know how to infuse intensity in this “journalistic-style” work. From me Bigelow and crew earn an A-.
On the other side of this review, we have Gangster Squad, starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi and Anthony Mackie. Up front, I admit, director Ruben Fleischer, kept me completely engrossed in his characters, but overall, his tale lacks substance. And when I say the characters impressed me, I do need to point out that Fleischer misses many, many opportunities to have a great deal more fun with them and the tale as a whole. His cast gels nicely and fit the characters perfectly, but with little to work, they appear more like pulp mob cops and characters than they do real people.
Visually the movie pleases for sure. Set in the late 1940’s, post WWII, Fleischer captures the essence of costumes, cars, sets and characters. We are indeed transported back to a time when someone like Mickey Cohen could “own” a town – in this case, Los Angeles – and with violence and in Cohen’s case craziness and corruption, bring the citizens of that city to their knees. Based on the novel Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman, screenwriter Will Beall’s story, although vividly rendered visually, lacks meaty substance, so in spite of a cast of truly gifted actors, it simply fails to stand up to genre similar films like Scarface or The Godfather.
Penn seethes sinister, but even he, at the hands of this script appears cartoonish. Brolin, an ex war vet who leads the squad of officers who go “undercover and off the books” to bring Down Cohen and his crew, perhaps give the most pat performance, but he, too, breathes the part. In fact, I enjoyed all the performances – were it not for them, I might have lost interest early on, and they work wonderfully well together.
Again, placing to extremely different films in one article seems awkward to me, but both have merit. From me the one earns an A-, but Gangster Squad is little more than mobster pulp and deserves no more than a C+ regardless of its outstanding cast.