Monday, August 12, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Gangster Squad (2013) **

R, 113 min.
Director: Rueben Fleischer
Writers: Will Beall, Paul Lieberman (novel)
Starring: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Sullivan Stapleton, Jon Polito

“Gangster Squad” is a particularly unimaginative period crime thriller. It suffers from the same fate as movies like “Transformers” in the way it depends more on the production design than it does on an actual story. I think the people who made the movie assume everyone knows who Mickey Cohen was and that L.A., unlike New York and Chicago, was never a stronghold for organized crime; but there was a time when many different gangsters tried to get a foothold on the City of Angels by using it’s notoriously corrupt police force for leverage.

Rueben Fleischer’s film is rather slim on explanations like this. Instead we get voiceovers from a cop that we are never really introduced to, Sgt. John O’Mara, who left L.A. to fight in World War II and returned to a city where corruption ruled the police force and gangsters were chomping at the bit. This movie focuses on the Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen, who is determined to get out from under the control of Chicago’s crime syndicate and build his own empire in L.A. Again we aren’t really told this as much as we have to piece it together from the few scenes of pure dialogue we get. Also Cohen was famous as a professional boxer. The fact that this information is mostly used as an excuse for a “Lethal Weapon” type fistfight between the two leads at the end of the movie is a great example of the unimaginativeness of the screenplay.

I don’t know why Sean Penn wanted to do this movie. Certainly, Mickey Cohen is an iconic figure to play. Harvey Keitel earned an Oscar nomination playing Cohen in Warren Beatty’s “Bugsy”. But, there’s really no deep study of Cohen to be found here. He’s basically just a thug in this movie. And the action movie climax with the fistfight between Cohen and O’Mara really doesn’t seem like Penn’s style.

It also should’ve started during World War II, instead of in the middle of L.A.’s corruption days. The movie mentions the war so much; it makes no sense that we never see the war. The strategy used against the gangsters is often compared to the combat seen in WWII. It would’ve made sense to see that horror for O’Mara first to better illustrate the parallels they keep trying to draw.

Unfortunately, the lazy tactics of cookie cutter Hollywood have been made even easier in this day of style over substance. While that tactic can work in the right hands, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, when the style is wielded by those who don’t understand that it takes more imagination to run that route; it results in hollow filmmaking no natter who your actors or subject matter.

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