Last May I speculated that Ruben Fleischer‘s Gangster Squad would be a low-grade L.A. version of Brian De Palma‘s The Untouchables. It had to bring in the under-35s, who hate yesteryear environments that aren’t familiar and video-gamey, and that meant going downmarket. On 1.4, having read Michael Cieply’s assessment of the film, I expressed concern that it might turn out “a little dumber and more primitive” than expected.
Well, I saw Gangster Squad last night and it’s primitive, all right. Primitive like a smart, well-trained ape. It’s loutish, cocky, smirking and swaggering. I brought a digital bullet-counter to the screening, and I can report that 478,446 bullets are fired in Gangster Squad. Early on some faceless stooge gets torn into two pieces and is then eaten by coyotes. And yet — this is the odd part — Fleischer’s film is half-intelligent. The first part is stupidly effective, and that always takes a little brains.
Fleischer’s pulpy, strutting direction and Will Beall‘s blunt, pared-down screenplay combine to create a hunk of mythical fantasy video-game bullshit machismo period porn, but the first act of Gangster Squad is not moronic, and for a while I was mildly entertained. It felt like it was channeling the spirit of Roger Corman‘s Machine Gun Kelly (’58) or Don Siegel‘s Baby Face Nelson (57) but with more throttle and brass-knuckles style, and with a heftier budget.
But then it gets weighed down by repetition — every decision by each and every character is flamboyant and basic and gorilla-crude — and then the standard desire to out-blast the last action shoot-em-up kicks in, and Gangster Squad just goes whacko and smacko and sluggo, and then it machine-guns itself to death.
On 1.4 I accurately speculated that “as Robert Downey, Jr.‘s version of Sherlock Holmes is to the older, more traditional versions played by Basil Rathbone, Robert Stephens or Nicol Wiliamson, Gangster Squad is to The Untouchables, Public Enemies, L.A. Confidential and Mulholland Falls.”
You know what else Gangster Squad isn’t as good as? Barry Levinson‘s Bugsy (’91). Similar period, L.A. gangsters (including Mickey Cohen), and five or six times better. I watched the first hour of this award-winning 1991 film when I got home last night. Gangster Squad is the oafish kid hanging out in the back alley who wants to be Bugsy, but he doesn’t have the right moves because he isn’t smart or assured enough.
But there are some good things in it.
Josh Brolin does a good solid job as a steady, square-jawed cop hero, Sgt. John O’Mara. Nothing miraculous but he holds his own and then some. Brolin has often been better than the material he’s working with, and is always up to the challenge.
Sean Penn‘s performance as gangster Mickey Cohen is cartoonishly venal, but at the same time darkly amusing. His behavior is so exaggerated that he’s only a couple of steps removed from Al Pacino‘s performance as Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy.
There’s a longish, Scorsese-styled tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling (Brolin’s womanizing, two-fisted colleague) as he approaches Slapsy Maxie’s (5665 Wilshire Blvd, now the site of an Office Depot) and follows him through the door and into the foyer and then the main dining room, and it stays with him until he sits down and begins a conversation with a costar. A couple of minutes long, and no cuts.