I make no secret about my fondness for James Ellroy's work. The L.A Quartet has the transcending power to bring you back to the dark side of mid-century Los Angeles. Back then, the city was prey to a gangster named Mickey Cohen, renowned for his brutality and his efficiency at corrupting people. L.A became a land of perdition while law enforcement looked the other way. Now if I love this era so much, I also have high standards about it, because Ellroy's novels were so damn good. So I flexed an eyebrow at the announce of GANGSTER SQUAD, a movie about the underbelly of mid-century L.A, based on another man's book (which Ellroy did endorse). There were two ways it could go, good or bad. I tried to follow badass reviewer Devin Faraci's advice and take the movie with a grain of salt, but I failed. I can't be easygoing with a movie that thinks I'm stupid.
You probably know the story already, at least the historical facts. Jewish-American gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) took over Los Angeles and transformed it in an illusory paradise for addicts of various kinds using violence and bribes to hoist himself into power. GANGSTER SQUAD is about a special, off-the-books police unit formed by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) that had for purpose to drive Cohen out of town. Not kill him, because it would only attract other gangsters of his ilk, but make his life miserable and destroy his business. The Chief puts Sergeant John O'Meara (Josh Brolin), a gritty World War II veteran, at the task of forming a special strike team to do the deeds. He puts together an unlikely, yet efficient team and shenanigans ensue.
If I found GANGSTER SQUAD so uninspiring, it's that it fails at fulfilling the most basic promise a movie can make. Tell a good story to its audience. In fact, it doesn't seem very concerned about that. It seems more concerned with putting fedoras on its characters heads, having long, overblown action scenes with Tommy Guns in them and having pompous, melodramatic music on as many scenes as it can (huge cinema pet peeve of mine). Maybe it was an ambitions problem, because it's trying to cover so much events and yet needs so much time for its action scenes, everything else seemed truncated. Director Ruben Fleischer is rushing through narrative development like he's late for some meeting. It's rather hard to feel a connection in between two characters if they never spend more than thirty seconds together on screen. Sure, it's stylish as hell...and fun, to a certain degree, but it's more about being stylish and fun than being a good movie per se.
A big disappointment of mine was Sean Penn, who's usual range goes from great to jaw-dropping. His game is such a badly drawn parody and he's the only one to act this way. It's like he thought he was in Dick Tracy. Also, his character has been sacrificed the most to this rushing business and except for two or three scenes, Cohen appears as a useless rich guy who dwells on the past and who can't keep up with sharp police work. He never appears very dangerous. The standout actor here is (again) Ryan Gosling, who puts some personality in that mild-mannered Don Juan character of his. He might get on some guys' nerves for systematically making every girl weak in the knees, but he's also taking his job at heart and is growing to be one of my favorites in Hollywood, not unlike Brad Pitt did in his late 90's, early 00's push.
GANGSTER SQUAD is not an openly bad movie, but it's self-satisfied to a point it becomes infuriating. It's not looking for your moviegoer approval at all. It should have been cartoonish fun, but it's so taken with its own storyline, I have seen cartoons with better narrative flows. Isn't there an inherent confusion about making a fun, cartoonish flick about a five hundred pages book? The endearing thing about movies like RAMBO or COMMANDO is that they're not trying to say much, but GANGSTER SQUAD is. It's trying to recapture a complex panorama of a troublesome era and ends up spouting a clunky story, dressed in era costumes. There are so many movies in the theaters worth your money, don't chose this one. Wait for the Netflix distribution or a very boring night at the video store. If you want to watch good era stuff, watch LAWLESS. If you read this and were involved in GANGSTER SQUAD's production and thought I would jump up and down at the mere sight of suits, fedoras and Tommy Guns, well fuck you. I want my thirteen dollars back.