Judge Gordon Sullivan didn't get into the Gangster Squad. He has a name.
No names. No badges. No mercy.
Great gangster films tend to come along at cultural flashpoints, especially when economic woes plague our country. The great example, of course, is all those Warner Bros. gangster pictures made during the Depression, but it's happened pretty consistently for most of the last century. The reason is probably twofold. On the one hand, we get to see capitalism run rampant in the figure of the gangster—for what is the gangster but a businessman with fewer scruples than normal—and see that run amok greed reined in by the forces of law and order. Or, the gangster becomes a heroic, Robin Hood type figure, helping the oppressed people when law and order are themselves running wild. 2013 seems like the perfect time for another good gangster epic—we've had a few years to process the financial meltdown of 2008 and Gangster Squad seems well placed to give us a taste of law and order. Sadly, the film would rather look pretty and be silly than offer anything of substance. Though you'll see pretty people performing stylized violence, don't expect much more than empty spectacle from Gangster Squad (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
Based on the historical record of gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, This Must be the Place), Gangster Squad follows the efforts of a rogue squad of cops, led by Sgt. O'Mara (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men). With his team of six men, and with the tacit approval of the police bureaucracy, O'Mara hopes to harass Cohen out of business, though Cohen's reaction might be deadly for all involved.
Gangster Squad makes too utterly irredeemable mistakes right out of the gate, and they're so staggering that the film can't ever quite recover. The first is that it chooses to focus on the real-life Mickey Cohen and give us that forties Art Deco-ish world of glamorous L.A. That, in itself, isn't a bad thing, but it puts the film in the same league as L.A. Confidential, one of the most measured and assured gangster flicks of all time. It could have worked. After all, De Palma remade Scarface—but Gangster Squad too often feels like a hollow echo of L.A. Confidential instead of its own film. Much of the same plot is there—rogue cops trying to shut down a gangster's operation—but it has little of the complexity, human or narrative, that makes its competitor so compelling.
The other obvious touchstone for the film is The Untouchables. For totally unrelated reasons, I watched Untouchables a week or so before Gangster Squad, and though the former film hasn't aged as well as I'd like, it feels like nothing else from the era, a touchstone going forward. In contrast, Gangster Squad feels like someone crammed the last ten years worth of films into 120 minutes and called it a gangster flick. We get moody (and colorful) lighting, stylized violence, and a contemporary look that doesn't feel at all unique.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
That's not to say that Gangster Squad is without its pleasures. The filmmakers have assembled a wonderful, dependable cast of actors who really jump into their roles. Brolin is ever-reliable as O'Mara, and he does a confident bad-ass with ease. Sean Penn is actually better in his role as Mickey Cohen than I could have imagined—the dialogue he's given is often pretty terrible, but Penn convinces as a ruthless gangster (here is perhaps the only place where Gangster Squad outshines its predecessors—Penn is a better Cohen than De Niro is a Capone). Ryan Gosling goes for a weirdly high-pitched take on the cute cop who gets the ladies, and Emma Stone is perfect as the femme fatale on whom he sets his sights.
The film is also good for spectacle. The violence comes fast and thick, with good chases in period cars and lots of attention to the production design. Gangster Squad also gets points for aiming for (and earning) an R rating. In an era in which the PG-13 seems to be the universal panacea for ailing attendance figures, it's nice to see a film go out of its way to court the adult market. Some might object to the violence of the film, but for fans of action, it's nice to see a squad of righteous cops step outside the law to deliver some justice to a figure as obviously tainted as Mickey Cohen. It might as well be Mickey Mouse for all of the attendant moral complexity, but if you just want to see gun battles and fist fights, the flick satisfies.
Gangster Squad (Blu-ray) also satisfies. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is near-perfect. Detail is strong throughout, colors are bright and vivid, and the black levels give L.A. a noirish feel that's deep and consistent. There's no noise or digital artefacts to be found either. Whatever shortcomings the film might have do not spill over into the presentation. The DTS-HD soundtrack is just as impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, the surrounds get a lot of use in action scenes, and the bombastic score rumbles the low end and has surprisingly clarity. It's a knockout sound presentation.
Extras start with a commentary by director Ruben Fleischer. It's an okay track that deals with a lot of production material and gives Fleischer an opportunity to explain his approach to the period and story. Next up is "The Gangland Files," a picture-in-picture extra that showcases behind the scenes footage and interviews during the film. There's also a set of featurettes that cover the making of, the locations, and the cast. There's also a decent documentary on Mickey Cohen and a handful of deleted scenes with optional commentary. Finally, the disc also includes the film's trailer. In addition to the Blu-ray, fans also get a DVD version of the film as well as a Digital Copy and Ultraviolet versions of the film.
For two hours of stylized violence and pretty production design, Gangster Squad delivers. For those looking for an interesting take on a famous character or a film that does anything new with gangster themes, this is not the flick for you. In either case this Blu-ray edition is amazing and worth a rental for fans of the actors. Those who enjoyed the film can buy this set with confidence.
Guilty of wasting its excellent cast.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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