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.