Friday, January 11, 2013

Gangster Squad: Cheeky, audacious portrait of 1950s Los Angeles

Gangster Squad (2013) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for nonstop violence, gore and profanity
By Derrick Bang

It’s a can’t-miss formula that goes back to the days of vintage Hollywood Westerns: the few against the many, particularly in a righteous cause.

Electronics nerd Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, center) overhears some delectable
information from the bug he planted in mobster Mickey Cohen's home, while squad
members John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, left) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) determine
how best to use this revelation.
This already engaging dynamic was enhanced by turning the underdog heroes into rag-tag misfits, with the genre expanding to include war and crime (or the war on crime). Some of the best examples have become cinema classics, such as The Magnificent Seven — and its forbearer, The Seven Samurai — and The Dirty Dozen. My own list of personal favorites includes Where Eagles Dare.

Director Brian De Palma upgraded an early 1960s TV show and brought Sean Connery an Academy Award as the moral center of 1987’s The Untouchables. A decade later, that film’s 1930s Chicago setting shifted to 1950s Los Angeles with director Lee Tamahori’s stylish handling of Mulholland Falls. Even post-WWII crime thrillers weren’t quite this noir.

All of which brings us to director Ruben Fleischer’s energetic Gangster Squad, based on Paul Lieberman’s book of the same title, and adapted with snap by Will Beall, who employs the same crisp sparkle he has brought to several episodes of television’s Castle. The dialogue sizzles, the dames are delectable, the actors chew their lines with the snarling fury of a hungry lion tearing into a steak, and the action has the rat-a-tat ferocity of the Tommy guns wielded on both sides.

Although Lieberman brought veteran journalistic skills to his well-researched account of gangster Mickey Cohen’s attempt to seize control of Los Angeles during the 1950s, this film probably bears no more relation to actual history than Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Some of the names will be recognized, but the execution here feels more like Mission: Impossible and L.A. Confidential, with a soupçon of 21st century sass.

And — sad to say — plenty of violence and some unnecessary gore. The story may demand a vicious streak, but must we really watch a man torn in half after being chained to two cars accelerating in opposite directions? Surely that image could have been left to our imaginations, rather than splattered across the screen ... along with the yummy glimpse of wild dogs tearing into the remains.

But then, Fleischer also is the gleeful maniac who upped the snark count in walking dead flicks, with 2009’s Zombieland, so I guess it’s in his genes. And, in fairness, everything that follows the aforementioned dismemberment — a prologue, of sorts, to set the mood — involves somewhat more palatable gunplay. And a few knives. And some acid. And ... well, you get the idea.

The year is 1949, and former boxer and mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, at his nastiest) has his hooks in every vice afflicting the City of Angels: drugs, prostitutes and guns. Cohen also has bent judges, corrupt cops and venal politicians on his payroll, and therefore operates with impunity, frequently holding court — in full view of the world —at a tony Sunset Strip nightclub dubbed Slapsy Maxie’s. Who would dare touch him?

(In real life, Cohen’s rise in Los Angeles came after mentor Bugsy Siegel moved to Las Vegas and was killed a year later; this film skips such back story.)

Los Angeles Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) has become desperate, but the glimmer of a plan emerges when he learns of a foolish act by square-jawed cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who busts into one of Cohen’s prostitution joints in order to save a corn-fed Midwestern girl, just off the bus and with stars in her eyes, from a fate worse than death.

Encouraged by this young officer’s refusal to follow crooked division policy — by leaving Cohen’s operations alone — Parker proposes an under-the-radar operation, with O’Mara in charge. He’s to build a squad of hand-picked, similarly virtuous colleagues just as fed up with Cohen’s strutting arrogance. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: to bring Cohen down in any way possible, legal niceties be damned.

In one of this script’s many appealing nods toward credible character development, O’Mara pores through department files with the help of his devoted wife, Connie (Mireille Enos, whose warm smile and down-to-earth manner brings considerable emotional depth to these doings). Connie encourages her husband to seek similar rule-breaking nonconformists, and thus we wind up with:

• Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), a rough-edged, Old West-style enforcer whose Olvera Street beat has led him to mentor...

• Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), an improbably named young Latino cop who worships Kennard like a father;

• Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), an African-American beat cop dismayed by the impact that drugs have had in the “jazz corridor” of his beloved Central Avenue; and

• Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), a nerdy scientist who brings his wartime electronics intelligence talents to the party.

O’Mara also offers a spot to longtime friend Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who declines. Both men returned from their war service to find their home town sinking beneath criminal slime, but the pragmatic Wooters figures it’s smarter to relax and enjoy the hedonistic inevitable, rather than arrest thugs who make it back to the streets within hours.

We know, however, that something will change Jerry’s mind; meanwhile, we delight in Gosling’s jaded surrender of a half-smile, as his self-destructive behavior leads him to make time with Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), Cohen’s current piece of arm candy. O’Mara can only shake his head, knowing full well that the mobster will execute both Jerry and Grace in a heartbeat, if he learns that she’s two-timing him.

That’s the sidebar detail that keeps us tense, along with the recognition that O’Mara and Keeler — the only two squad members with families — are beyond stupid for not sending their respective loved ones out of harm’s way. Indeed, that’s a distracting detail in Beall’s script; it’s impossible to believe that O’Mara, as depicted here by Brolin, would be that daft.

Similarly, it seems odd that our plucky heroes wouldn’t bother to conceal their faces (as they do during an initial, unsuccessful attack on one of Cohen’s operations). All the civilian witnesses at these various nightclubs and gambling dens, all the low-level thugs left alive but with knees shattered by bullets, and nobody — looking to make a fast buck — can tell Cohen, “Hey, I know these guys; they’re cops!”

Seems unlikely, don’t it?

You may not care about such pesky details, though, because there’s too much fun to be had with this group, whether from Kennard’s prowess with a pistol, or Keeler’s inventive breakthrough in surveillance, when he suggests bugging Cohen’s home. There’s a great late-night car chase, augmented by plenty of gunfire, and the squad’s assignments get increasingly dodgy as Cohen realizes that he’s dealing with some oddly determined adversaries.

A pressing deadline comes into play, as well, once the squad learns that Cohen plans to open a numbers operation that’ll give him a piece of every wire bet placed west of Chicago. Should that happen, the money will roll in so quickly — with Cohen thus able to buy more cops and crooked politicians — that he’ll be unstoppable.

Just in passing, O’Mara, Wooters and Keeler are actual historical figures, as are Cohen, Chief Parker and Jack Whalen (Sullivan Stapleton), one of Wooters’ childhood friends, now the manager of Slapsy Maxie’s, who occupies an intriguing niche between cops and crooks. Their actual interrelations can be viewed in this fascinating L.A. Times chart. The other characters are colorful figments of Beall’s imagination.

It has taken me awhile to warm up to Brolin, who was far too stiff and wooden in his early adult roles (after debuting as a kid in 1985’s The Goonies). But his acting chops matured with No Country for Old Men and Milk, and he’s eminently convincing as this film’s gruff moral center; his scenes with Enos also are warm and gentle. He’s appropriately brawny, as well, and seems capable of handling the necessary fisticuffs.

Gosling’s Wooters is the character who holds our attention, though: flip, jaded and oddly blithe, with plenty of smoldering tension just waiting to erupt. (Indeed, we yearn for that moment.) Gosling even strikes a T-shirted pose that evokes young Marlon Brando, a nod to cinema’s past that can’t be accidental.

Ribisi has Keeler’s mousy, bespectacled nerdiness down cold, and I love the mildly prickly relationship between Patrick’s ultra-cool Kennard and Peña’s somewhat reckless Ramirez. Mackie, as well, displays plenty of delectable ’tude as the knife-throwing Harris. Really, we can’t get enough of these guys.

Stone is appropriately vampish as the rash and sultry Grace, and the actress manages to sell this character’s manifestly foolish dalliance with Jerry. We see the resignation in Stone’s eyes: Grace knows that she’s probably doomed either way — since Cohen will, inevitably, tire of her — and she therefore sees no downside to indulging this unlikely opportunity for true love.

Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha) gives Los Angeles’ nighttime mean streets a vibrant, shadowy glow that evokes warm memories of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Editors Alan Baumgarten and James Herbert add plenty of zip to this 113-minute film, which builds to an explosive — if increasingly unlikely — third act.

It all comes down to style, and Fleischer brings plenty of that to the table. Gangster Squad feels like classy, 1950s film noir filtered through modern sensibilities: not a bad niche to occupy. If you can stomach the spilled blood, you’ll have a great time.

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