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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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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up