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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Gangster Squad

 

 

GANGSTER SQUAD (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Ruben Fleischer, 2013

Gangster Squad is a well-produced but badly written crime movie depicying a 1949 war between gangster Mickey Cohen and a vigilante squad of undercover LAPD cops. Watching it, brought back memories of  the real Mickey Cohen, as I saw him on TV decades ago. He was a scary guy, but not in the psychopathic monster style with which Sean Penn sometimes amusingly plays him here.  The real Mickey Cohen was scary because he seemed, in a funny way, so ordinary, so likable, like a tough uncle with lots of  bloody but colorful war stories.

When I saw him, Cohen was on the Mike Douglas show, which had an afternoon slot, and he was talking about his meeting with  Harry Cohn, the long-time head of Columbia Pictures, and reputedly one of the meanest among all Golden Age Hollywood execs (which is saying something). Cohn had called him into his office, according to Mickey, to ask him for an expensive favor. He wanted Mickey to murder Sammy Davis, Jr., who had incurred Cohn’s displeasure by having a (very secret) affair with Cohen’s top Columbia blonde bombshell Kim Novak. As Mickey told it,  he listened patiently, then informed Columbia’s boss that he knew Sammy Davis, Jr., he knew Sammy’s father and family, and if anything at all injurious ever happened  to Sammy or any other Davis, he, Mickey Cohen would find Harry Cohn, and blow his head off.

Did that story really happen? Mickey told it very convincingly, without any seeming pathological kinks or  boastfulness. He obviously expected the audience to  regard him well for presumably saving Davis’s life, and they probably, mostly, did. Somehow, by his air of seeming candor and his casual toughness, he had succeeded in pulling us into his dark world, and its deadly codes  As for the fact that he had confessed to physically threatening a powerful movie mogul with a horrible death, well, Mickey Cohen  was a gangster. That’s what gangsters do. That’s one of the reasons we keep watching gangster movies.

That Mickey Cohen story is more interesting, and scarier, than anything that happens in Gangster Squad, a movie so bloody and violent (superficially so) that it was actually pulled from its original release date  after the Dark Knight massacre in the Aurora, Colorado multiplex, and partly reshot. (They cut  a Gangster Squad massacre scene set in Grauman‘s Chinese Theatre and reset it in Chinatown.)

But bloodiness and violence don’t really sting unless the people are real, and nobody is real in Gangster Squad: Not the movie’s Mickey Cohen, whom Penn plays as a kind of cross between Gary Oldman’s Dracula, the Frankenstein monster  and Robert De Niro as Al Capone in The Untouchables. Not the vigilantes — played as six clichés in search of an author by Josh Brolin as Sgt. John O‘Mara, the tough returned WW2 vet, Ryan Gosling as Jerry Wooters, the tough lady-killer, Anthony Mackie as Coleman Harris. the tough black cop, Michael Pena the tough Mexican cop Navidad Ramirez, Robert Patrick as the tough old western coot Max Kennard, and Giovanni Ribisi as the not-so-tough techno-geek Conway Keeler (a cliché about three decades early). And not Police Chief William Parker, the LAPD’s controveersial head cop, whom Nick Nolte turns into  a growly old patriarch. Nor Emma Stone as femme fatale Grace Faraday (Cohen’s girl, who’s also sneaking out with Jerry Wooters. Wathcing all this top-flight talent stuffinf themsleves into these roles is kind of like watching a seven layer gourmet weddding cake being stuffed into a Twinkies package — but that’s probably an insult to the memory of Twinkies.

The story is simple — which is probably exactly what the police-vs.-Mickey Cohen wars were not. But even though everything in the movie is painfully predictable, everything is also painfully unmemorable. It tends to dribble out of your head as soon as you’ve seen it. O’Mara does something violently heroic, which draws the attention of Parker, who proposes the undercover gig. O’Mara recruits the other five. His wife  (Mireille Enos) is worried. Meanwhile, the film’s Mickey Cohen behaves maniacally; in his first big scene, he has a failed minion pulled apart by two cars near the old Hollywoodland sign. (Even that scene is forgettable.) The gangster squad attacks Cohen. He fights back. Bang. Bang. Jerry and Grace sneak off for hanky-panky. Everything keeps building toward the last big showdown. It isn’t worth the effort.

Ruben Fleischer, who directed Gangster Squad, has been mostly a hard-edged comedy director (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less). But one of the problems with Gangster Squad is that, though it’s frequntly ridiculous, it isn’t very funny, which was this script’s only real chance.  One could watch Gangster Squad and come away with the impression that Cohen was Dracula, and that Parker was John Wayne, and that the gangster quad were the Magnificent Almost Seven. But the movie, even though uits clearly a crock of crap,  still doesn’t entertain you. Which is the biggest crime of all.

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“When Bay keeps these absurd plot-gears spinning, he’s displaying his skill as a slick, professional entertainer. But then there are the images of motion—I hesitate to say, of things in motion, because it’s not clear how many things there are in the movie, instead of mere digital simulations of things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a car chase through London, seen from the level of tires, that could have gone on for an hour, um, tirelessly. What matters is that the defenestrated Cade saves himself by leaping from drone to drone in midair like a frog skipping among lotus pads; that he and Vivian slide along the colossal, polished expanses of sharply tilting age-old fields of metal like luge Olympians. What matters is that, when this heroic duo find themselves thrust out into the void of inner space from a collapsing planet, it has a terrifyingly vast emptiness that Bay doesn’t dare hold for more than an instant lest he become the nightmare-master. What matters is that the enormous thing hurtling toward Earth is composed in a fanatical detail that would repay slow-motion viewing with near-geological patience. Bay has an authentic sense of the gigantic; beside the playful enormity of his Transformerized universe, the ostensibly heroic dimensions of Ridley Scott’s and Christopher Nolan’s massive visions seem like petulant vanities.”
~ Michael Bay Gives Richard Brody A Tingle

How do you see film evolving in this age of Netflix?

I thought the swing would be quicker and more violent. There have been two landmark moments in the history of French film. First in 1946, with the creation of the CNC under the aegis of Malraux. He saved French cinema by establishing the advance on receipts and support fund mechanisms. We’re all children of this political invention. Americans think that the State gives money to French films, but they’re wrong. Through this system, films fund themselves!

The other great turning point came by the hand of Jack Lang in the 1980s, after the creation of Canal+. While television was getting ready to become the nemesis of film, he created the decoder, and a specific broadcasting space between film and television, using new investments for film. That once again saved French film.

These political decisions are important. We’re once again facing big change. If our political masters don’t take control of the situation and new stakeholders like Netflix, Google and Amazon, we’re headed for disaster. We need to create obligations for Internet service providers. They can’t always be against film. They used to allow piracy, but now that they’ve become producers themselves, they’re starting to see things in a different light. This is a moment of transition, a strong political act needs to be put forward. And it can’t just be at national level, it has to happen at European level.

Filmmaker Cédric Klapisch