Saturday, May 4, 2013

Gangster Squad (B)

Rarely is there a film whose title perfectly matches the end product as much as Ruben Fleischer's glamourous, pseudo-grindhouse flick Gangster Squad. Replete with corny lines, horribly miscast actors, slick editing and cinematography, clichéd plot points, and immensely entertaining performances, Fleischer blasts an ultra-violent path for his film; foregoing any of the period piece aesthetic one might expect from a late 1940s set winter release starring the Oscar friendly Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling. In its place is a gloriously dumb neo-noir/shoot 'em up hybrid: A run-of-the-mill gansgsplotation film on a Pixie Stick sugar high. An excuse for Josh Brolin to borrow the grizzled detective persona for a little under two hours, a rare opportunity for comedic actress Emma Stone to play a femme fatale, and a showcase for Penn to obliterate the scenery as one of the most over-the-top villains in recent memory. It's the defibrillator shock which sends you reeling back into consciousness in the middle of the January/February dumping ground. Not a great film in terms of traditional quality, but it makes up for it with an unrelenting devotion to the gangster genre and a general feeling of madcap joy from all involved.

The film takes place in Los Angeles, 1949. A ruthless mob king and former boxer named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) rules the city with an iron fist and a penchant for psychopathic levels of violence. In an effort to take him down the city Chief of Police (Nick Nolte) requests for one of the few incorruptible cops on the local force (Josh Brolin) to create a secret crew of trustworthy officers to take down Cohen's criminal operation without the limitations of arrest warrants and such. By about the thirty minute mark, the "gangster squad" is assembled: The Leader (Brolin), the Pretty Boy (Ryan Gosling), the Street Smart Cop (Anthony Mackie), the Family Man (Giovanni Ribisi), the Kid (Michael Pina, which admittedly isn't great casting because he's actually older than Mackie, but I digress), and the Wild Card (Robert Patrick). The squad begins picking fights with Cohen, throw in a romantic subplot between Gosling and Stone, who plays Cohen's unofficial girlfriend, and you have yourself the movie. Screenwriter Will Beall makes it his ambition to have every aspect of the film predictable to the slightest lines of dialogue; an excessive homage to the "the gang saves the day" war films of the 1960s, almost to the point where it feels like the most generic plagiarism possible. Which further drives this point is how the characters constantly remind viewers that their fight is a form of guerrilla warfare. 

What elevates Beall's script though, is the zippy direction from Fleischer and the zany acting choices from Penn. While some of the other performers have moments of scene-chewing glory as well, Penn both physically and orally obliterates everything in his path like a The Devil's Advocate-era Al Pacino. Overacting to the extremes, it's an Oscar winner cutting loose in a villainous role unlike anything else we're likely to ever receive again. Especially after a string of more subdued performances such films as This Must Be the Place and The Tree of Life, it's great to see him with such a maniacal character. Also good is Michael Pina, playing the least developed member of the squad. Despite never necessarily being given the same amount of material as his costars, his general charisma as an actor makes him a scene stealer.

Though there might not be one individual moment memorable beyond the initial experience, Gangster Squad is a goofily thrilling piece of whizz-bang popcorn entertainment. It certainly won't be considered a "great" film by traditional definition, but Fleischer provides a gleefully over-the-top and excessive period-piece/shoot 'em up.

Grade: B

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