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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.