Friday, January 18, 2013

Gangster Squad: A Review

Emma Stone looking very dolly

Mrs Kinch, Cousin Basil and I went to see Gangster Squad a few days ago.  The girls had been to see Les Miserables the day before and I was determined to see something with an appropriate number of explosions to take the edge off yet another rendition of "I dreamed a dream."

Gangster Squad tells the story of a group of Los Angeles policemen who wage private war against a New York hood named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who is determined to take over Los Angeles. Led by Sergeant O'Mara (Josh Brolin), they fight terror with terror.

The opening sequence portrays Mickey Cohen ordering a East Coast hood torn apart by two cars. This rather spectacularly signposts the fact that while the film touts itself as "...inspired by true events," director Ruben Fleischer definitely decides to print the legend and not the facts.

But here is the real wife material (Josh Brolin & Mireille Enos)

Gangster Squad is beautifully photographed, well acted, slick film. Josh Brolin is magnificently craggy as Sergeant O'Mara and Ryan Gosling brings a light touch as Sergeant Wooters. Sean Penn's portrayal of Mickey Cohen as a twitching psyschopath owes rather more to Cagney's Cody Jarret than the real Mickey Cohen, but is still riveting. Emma Stone has received praise for her performance as a femme fatale over her head, but Mireille Enos as Connie O'Mara, Josh Brolin's pregnant wife, blows her off the screen.  In a script not marked by brilliance, the scenes of effortless intimacy between her and Brolin, brief though they are, were the highlight of the film for me.  In a world replete with dull "beautiful, but deadly" heroines, she is a breath of fresh air - funny, loving and tough as nails.  I'll take fascinating over pretty any day, though with Enos you don't have to choose. We could do with a dozen more like her. I'd love to see her play Lady Macbeth

But what about the rest of the cast? Well therein lies a tale. 

Sgt O'Mara is given a commission to raise an off the books unit of gangster hunters and the team he assembles gives the game away.  I know nothing about Ruben Fleischer, I haven't seen anything any of his other films, but like it or not, he has made a decent fist at a western.

"I'll dance with the one that brung me"

If Millers Crossing was in the words of its director, a film about men in beautiful hats,  Gangster Squad is a western that eschews stetsons. I realised it within twenty minutes of the film beginning - the diverse nature of Brolin's posse, including one genuine cowboy played with admirable humour by Robert Patrick, whose father-son relationship with Michael Pena kept me smiling, evokes John Sturge's Magnificent Seven. The landscape of Los Angeles, except for its brothels and juke joints, is as empty as John Ford's Monument Valley. The Gangster Squad beat, intimidate and shoot their way across a town that doesn't seem to support passers by as part of the local ecosystem.  Sean Penn hits the nail on the head when he warns off another gangster with the line, "This isn't Chicago, this is the wild west."

It cheered me up no end, I couldn't work out why I kept thinking of Lee Marvin when I looked at Josh Brolin.

Gangster Squad is a good film and well worth seeing, though it has two major failings.  An urban western, it's slick and it's beautiful and as stylised as Sin City ever was. It would have had a better time of it had it not used Mickey Cohen's name or claimed to have been "...inspired by true events." Far better to have set in some nameless city or a Hammet inspired Personville rather than LA, which would have avoided the ridiculous criticism that it ignores the LAPD's history of racism or the real circumstances of Mickey Cohen's fall or any number of other charges being levelled at it.  A case of a chicken being slated for not quacking like a duck.

Kicking it oldschool with the C dog

As Marlow put it, "I believe I undertook amongst other things not to disclose any trade secrets. Well, I am not going to."

The Gangster Squad win - they catch Mickey Cohen and he's put away. If this has ruined the surprise for you, my apologies; also welcome to the world of film, I hope you enjoy it here.

This is where the film falls down - if you have the chance, as soon as Mickey Cohen is arrested, leave the cinema, you'll be better off. There follows the obligatory "where are they now", where we're told what happens to each member of the squad. It's nauseatingly saccharine and I hated every minute of it. A normal gangster film could get away with this, it's unpleasant, but it's necessary. But for the western that Gangster Squad really is - underneath it's tommy guns and snap brim fedoras, it's positively criminal.

The classic Western is a film about the tension between civilization and barbarism. In Kenneth Hite's essay, "The Man Who Shot Joseph Curwen"*, he writes.

"... the central  agon of the other great American narrative art form (besides fantastic fiction), the Western film. The agon, the central conflict, of every classic Western from The Toll Road in 1920 to Unforgiven in 1992 is as follows:

• Barbarism can only be defeated with the gun.

• All those who pick up the gun are barbarians."

The Gangster Squad have stepped beyond the law, they have wrought a bloody vengeance on the men who would destroy the civilization they are sworn to protect and it is right and fitting that they do so.

Goodbye Tom Doniphan 

But they must be destroyed.  For the civilisation to thrive it must push the barbarians out, even righteous barbarians.  Connie should have left John O'Mara or should have died in their bungalow when it was machine gunned. The squad went beyond the acceptable and far beyond the decent to achieve what needed to be done, but that comes with a cost and regardless of how well intentioned or how noble the motive, that debt has to be paid.  The sacrifice has to be real for the act to be anything else other than adolescent wish fulfilment.  Ruben Fleischer had the chance to make a fine film and settled for making a good one.

In "The Man who shot Liberty Valance", John Wayne dies alone.  

I regret to say Sgt. O'Mara wasn't given the chance to die with him.

 *Available here


  1. This is a rather good review, Kinch, old man. Perhaps a forward-looking Garda hierarchy could create the post of 'Service/Force Film Luvvy' ? I don't watch 'movies' anymore (my brain is a funny old thing and dislikes disturbance), but I take it from your review that I am a lot better off with my much-loved Chandler accounts of California in the days of trilbies. Chandler was more than willing to finger the LAPD, and sometimes in very funny ways, as in the scene where two cops are compared to Hemingway for the richness of their dialogue! On a slightly different note, the opening scene you describe reminded me that the very reason that I have hitherto avoided the Peninsular was being told, by a Prussian classicist and Bonarpartist, of the similar fate (only using trees) of captured French officers in the campaign. Dam' foreigners..

  2. You liked it far better than A.O. Scott in The New York Times. I wanted to see it until I read this review. You are making me reconsider my boycott.

  3. That is a fine review Kinch - informative, well considered and argued. How did I miss this? I particularly enjoyed your comments in respect of civilization vs barbarism, and the implications for those who rather too eagerly accept the notion that the ends justify the means.

    It does sound as though there is a potential for social comment in this movie, or perhaps I should say, that a viewer might well infer some such comment from it.

    I am reminded of a reviewer's remark in respect of 'The Unforgiven' that he felt the ending - the shootout in which the protagonist defeats his enemy - was a cop out from the build up that exploded the myths of the old West, in which heroes and villains swapped roles and were almost indistinguishable from each other anyway; in which consequences didn't care whether you were a good guy or a bad guy.

    But I felt that the ending made this point. The myths of the Old West were bunkum, the creation of over-imaginative 'fans' from the east, all right. But every now and then, just occasionally, once in a long, long time, the myths were true.

    I like that.