Skip to main content

The whole town's underwater. You're grabbing a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit.


Gangster Squad
(2013)

Substitute Al Capone for Mickey Cohen, and you have a gangster movie closely following The Untouchables’ formula but devoid of that film’s style and wit; an elite squad of police misfits are assembled to bring down a mob boss, and they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

Director Ruben Fleischer (whose Zombieland was a lot of fun, but it’s difficult to see how anyone thought he’d bring out the best in this material) and writer Will Beall are no Brian De Palma and David Mamet, but I think they’d quite like to be. The Untouchables played on the clichés of the crime fiction and Mamet delivered an intentionally straightforward morality play; the flourish of De Palma’s direction and Ennio Morricone’s score transformed it into something indelible. The writer/director team of Gangster Squad simply delivers the B movie material in B movie fashion.

The production design and period trappings furnish the production with the kind of finesse you’d expect, but Fleischer’s approach is resolutely cartoonish. This is one step up from Dick Tracy, rather than one step down from serious mob fare. As if to emphasise its true heritage, Sean Penn’s Cohen is buried under ridiculous prosthetics; he looks nothing less than a supporting villain in Warren Beatty’s take on the comic book detective. Sure, the director can handle an action sequence. But he has no take on the material other than to render it as blandly pulpy as possible. When Cohen informs a henchman “You know the drill”, and seconds later the boss and a couple of goons make mince of his brains with an electric drill, it’s clear that this film has few aspirations to intelligence or refinement.

Needless to say, the script plays fast and loose with the history of the case. Early on, it looks like it might have the balls to eke out a distinctive path as squad leader John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) takes an unwise brawn-before-brains approach and nearly gets the team killed. But, with only a couple of sequences illustrating their approach and almost no insight into Cohen and his activities (other than that he is nasty, has designs on expanding his empire, and has a squeeze – Emma Stone – who is also seeing squad member Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)), it’s set to end up shallow and dissatisfying. Lip service is paid to outsmarting Cohen, but the film is really only interested in over-the-top shootouts and car chases with tommy guns blazing. Such an approach could only take off if told with vibrancy, but what we get is so-so pastiche.

As such the cast is a waste; Brolin and Gosling give shading to the honourable cop and the jaded cop respectively. Brolin, at least, is something of a hardnosed variation on Costner’s clean-cut Elliot Ness. Mireille Enos also provides a different take on the devoted wife; pregnant and reluctant to see her husband killed, she gives his list of squad candidates the once-over to ensure he has adequate protection. Stone has great chemistry with Gosling, but her role is entirely derivative. Penn is unimpressive; most likely the script is partly to blame, but he’s your standard rent-a-thug. In The Untouchables, De Niro has considerably less screen time as Al Capone but the impact and economy of Mamet’s writing ensures that his presence is felt throughout. Other members of the squad are given little chance to make an impression, with Beall hoping the audience will pick up on their “types” in the place of characterisations (Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribsi – not mugging frantically for a change -, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick). It’s a predictable measure of Beall’s indebtedness to The Untouchables that the brains and old-timer in the squad don’t make it to the end credits; there is none of the pathos of the 1987 film, however.

The film required reshoots when a sequence in a movie theatre was cut following the Aurora shootings. It was replaced with the film’s Chinatown sequence; the makers would have better spent their time attending to the telegraphed plotting and lack of intrigue, rather than adding more explosions and bullet-riddled bodies. It is a violent film, but one with little impact; you don’t care much for the protagonists or their agenda and, by the time of the wearisomely inevitable fistfight announces the climax, Fleischer has completely lost any grip on the material.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.