Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Gangster Squad lights a damp squib

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on January 19, 2013)

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, and others
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Rating: 2 stars
Every time a gangster movie has a bad boy called ‘Mickey’, one is tempted to groan. You know there will be nicknames along the lines of ‘The Blade’ and ‘Scarface’ and ‘Gun Hand’ and ‘Pretty Boy’ and ‘Cat’s Whiskers’ and ‘Tommy Gun’. Well, the ones in this film are rather less memorable, and I wish I could forget that the only joke around Mickey’s name is the obvious pun about the Mouse. Facepalm. But this film lives up to gangster lore by populating itself with stock characters, each of whom has exactly one talent. And not all of these talents are useful. Jerry’s (Ryan Gosling’s) main skill appears to be charming ladies of the Forties into bedding him, while wearing a bowler hat at a saucy angle. And that only lands everyone in a lot of trouble, and gets some people killed.
So, sometime in 1949, having executed a man, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) announces that Los Angeles belongs to him. He’s engaged in some sort of war with a Chicago gang, and appears to be winning. The LA Police Department, though, decides to get in on the act. For some reason, Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) wants to “shatter Cohen’s operations” with utmost secrecy. Enter Sergeant O’ Mara (Josh Brolin), who puts together a band of war veterans and sharpshooters, who bond over post-war angst and general bloodthirstiness. They abandon badges, names, and principles, to become the Gangster Squad.
Adding a feminine touch to this orgy of gore are two redheads (Mireille Enos and Emma Stone), playing a pregnant wife and a strumpet-with-a-golden-heart respectively. The film tries its best to swim in its own testosterone, with lines like “The two things you can’t take back in this business are bullets outta your gun, and words outta your mouth”, but flails when its heroes break down every time someone dies. And the hamming from its star cast wouldn’t be out of place in a Bollywood film from the Angry Young Man era.
The film does have its high points. My favourites are a couple of well-timed lines from Giovanni Ribisi, who is the brain – and conscience – of an army of adrenaline-fuelled vigilantes. And there are comic sequences that are nicely done. However, the dialogue, especially in those parts that aspire to cleverness, tends to be irritatingly vacant. And a cast that appeared happy to make fun of itself in the beginning becomes progressively wannabe tough-dude-ish. Even the video quality drops towards the end, and the finale descends into a series of slow-mo and rapid action sequences.
Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t see too many good gangster films nowadays is that people don’t write Gangsterspeak anymore. In a nod to feminism or whatever it is, the women aren’t simply arm candy and sex toys. They’re people, whom the gangsters care about. And how many ever patriotic marches and video-game like gunfights you throw in, family men don’t make good bad boys.
The Verdict: If you’re craving gunshots, party girls, and swing music, you’re better off watching Once Upon a Time in America again.

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