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A chronicle of the Los Angeles Police Department's fight to keep East Coast Mafia out of Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s.
For more about Gangster Squad and the Gangster Squad Blu-ray release, see Gangster Squad Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on April 9, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick
Director: Ruben Fleischer
» See full cast & crew
Gangster Squad Blu-ray Review
"You tell them Los Angeles belongs to Mickey Cohen!"
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, April 9, 2013
Infamously delayed in the wake of the tragic 2012 Aurora theater shooting, Gangster Squad arrived four months after its intended release, with a new mid-movie shootout that didn't involve a massacre in a movie theater. It was a smart decision on the filmmakers' part, no matter how fiercely some cinephiles reacted to the sensitivity that inspired the move. At the same time, it's a strange sort of sensitivity that identifies the image of a bullet-riddled theater as problematic, rather than the at-times gratuitous, all but objectified violence the shootout, and much of what bookends it, embraces with testosterone-saturated giddiness. A man is ripped in half, a woman is nearly raped, three men are burned alive... and that's just in the first ten minutes. It isn't graphic per se, but it revels in machine guns, mayhem and death. Don't misunderstand, I have zero interest in putting screen violence on trial. Certainly not here. But Gangster Squad hinges on violence and little more, and with it comes an odd, slack-jawed silliness. The film aspires for Untouchables greatness but bumbles all the elements that make Brian De Palma and David Mamet's 1987 crime drama great. It longs to be L.A. Confidential but falls closer to The Black Dahlia. It desperately paws at the classics of '30s and '40s gangster cinema, hoping to reinvent and reinvigorate while mounting something more akin to a furrowed-brow parody instead. And it takes its aforementioned silliness way too seriously. It isn't a bad film, I'll give it that. Just a terribly unremarkable one; more memorable for the notorious sequence it lost than anything it has to offer.
Los Angeles, 1949. Self-appointed boss of the California criminal underworld Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) sets his sights on expanding his territory and power by any means necessary. In response, LAPD chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) assembles a team of gunmen to put pressure on Cohen's empire and crush it... by any means necessary, off the books and in secret. (Because Tommy guns and public executions are the keys to a covert takedown.) The squad? WWII Special Operations veteran Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), soft-spoken heavy hitter Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, rehashing his vastly superior performance in Drive), quick-draw gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), his eager but green-behind-the-ears partner Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), no-nonsense detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), and family man and former Army Intelligence officer Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). What follows is an explosion of bullets, broads and booze, with Emma Stone caught in a love triangle with Wooters and Cohen, Mireille Enos as O-Mara's pregnant wife, Holt McCallany and Troy Garity as Cohen's go-to men, and Sullivan Stapleton as Wooters' informant.
"Every man carries a badge. Some symbol of his allegiance. His were the scars of a boxer who'd used his fists to climb the social ladder of the mob. A Jew who'd gained the respect of wops through a homicidal lust. He'd sworn an oath of violence. And his master? His own insatiable will to power. He wanted to own this town...
... His name is Mickey Cohen." Cue Penn's gristled mug turning toward the camera in slow motion. His eyes burn. It's the most subtle beat of Penn's performance, an over-the-top, passive-aggressive eruption of criminal id that would make even Al Pacino raise an eyebrow. Before long, Spicoli's pounding his finger into a table at a crowded restaurant, barking "this isn't Chicago! This is the Wild f---ing West! You heard of Manifest Destiny? That's when you take what you can when you can. The greasers took it from the redskins and we took it from them. And I'm gonna take it all from you, Jack! And not just because I can, but because this is my destiny! Los Angeles is my f---ing destiny, you motherf----er!" Penn is suddenly a bloodthirsty, R-rated Dick Tracy villain, swollen prosthetic nose and all. His Cohen isn't a streetwise mobster. He's a force of unhinged, f-bombing nature, and every scene he graces serves one purpose: to remind the audience just how much of a monster Cohen is. Gangster Squad isn't really about the do-or-die squad at all, even though Gosling and company get far more screentime. It's an early '90s Batman flick hellbent on building up the threat that is its colorful Big Bad rather than dissecting the Everymen willing to sacrifice their lives to put a madman out of commission.
Director Ruben Fleischer runs through the Everymen motions, though, peeking into O'Mara's family life, the squad's paint-by-numbers dynamics and, of course, the romance between Gosling's Wooters and Stone's Grace Faraday. Their love story is a messy, unnecessary diversion that nearly hijacks the film. Poor Gosling and Stone are forced to wade through the increasingly ludicrous affair without any help either, chewing up cringe-inducing gangland dialogue and spitting it out to no avail. Worse, their screen chemistry is DOA, which will come as quite a shock to anyone who fell for Jacob and Hannah in Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Show of hands. Mine's already up.) Brolin and the rest of Gangster Squad's Tinseltown squad aren't much better, dutifully gnawing on Will Beall's quasi-pulp script without a lot to show for it. Again, style trumps substance as cliché after cliché, genre convention after genre convention, are strapped to a chair, beaten, battered and bled dry. If it isn't a mob movie quip you've heard a dozen times before, it's a chase or shootout you've seen played out a hundred times over. Despite all the gore, all the muzzle flashing, all the retro-noir sizzle, the results are inexplicably and unmistakably familiar. And ordinary.
John Hillcoat's Lawless, released a scant few months earlier, was exceedingly violent, not to mention far bloodier and more visceral, and perhaps the same charge of hollow violence could be leveled against its brutality. But Hillcoat's savagery is unbearably convincing and, above all, genuinely unsettling. Disturbing even. (Tom Hardy's throat sawing leaps to mind.) Gangster Squad, though, is a comic book. It isn't an assault on the senses, it's an assault on good sense. There's a fair bit of fun to be had, I'll admit. Watching Penn unwittingly ham it up, for one. Seeing a stiff-lipped Brolin and a meek-n-mild Gosling tower over dead bodies with a gleam in their eye. Following the squad into Chinatown or a ritzy hotel for a bit of the old ultra-action. Or pretending the whole shebang is a four-times-removed adaptation of Mia Wallace's failed television pilot, Fox Force Five. (Take note: each member of the squad has a special skill that defines him.) Ironically, Gosling and Stone, chemistry or no, are Gangster Squad's greatest assets. Arguably Penn as well, if outrageous theatricality is your thing. The rest of the cast, Brolin especially, falls flat. The squad's secret mission amounts to a threadbare actioner that may as well star The Expendables crew. And historical accuracy? The truth isn't just thrown out the window. It's dangled off the edge of plausibility by its ankles until it gives up a few choice pieces of information, and then dropped eleven stories to the street below. Embellishment, exaggeration and creative license run this town. Best not cross them.
Gangster Squad Blu-ray, Video Quality
Gangster Squad's 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer looks every bit as good as a recent theatrical presentation should. Shadows hang heavy, as intended, and colors are often doused in darkness and richly saturated. Even so, primaries pack real heat (reds in particular), skintones are warm and beautifully saturated, black levels are impeccably deep and contrast, though rather stark at times, never falters. Detail is quite striking too, even if a fair amount of inherent softness creeps into the image. Clean, natural edges and precisely resolved fine textures showcase everything from the production design to the costumes. When the lights are up that is. Delineation is uncompromising, but so is cinematographer Dion Beebe's evocative use of light, shadow and the dead of night. Moreover, macroblocking, ringing, banding, noise and aliasing are nowhere to be found, and negligible crush is the only minor issue of note. All told, gangland addicts and deadeye videophiles will be thoroughly pleased.
Gangster Squad Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Warner's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is as perfectly suited to the job, no matter how dirty it gets. Low-end output is more violent than the film itself, transforming every gunshot into a shotgun blast and every shotgun blast into a thunderclap. The power afforded by the LFE channel is staggering, and yet it exhibits tremendous subtly, lending the full weight of its support to everything from gunfire to explosions to the mounting dread that slowly builds within Steve Jablonsky's score. The rear speakers are intimately involved as well, employing pinpoint directional effects, disarming pans and a wholly immersive soundfield to enveloping ends. All the while, dialogue keeps its feet firmly on the ground with clear, intelligible voices and flawless prioritization. Even when all hell breaks loose, both the shouts and whispers of the mobsters and lawmen stand fast, without flinching or taking cover for a second. Yes, the soundscape becomes unnervingly loud on occasion. But Gangster Squad doesn't tiptoe, nor is it meant to. It kicks down doors and opens fire, shooting first and asking questions later.
Gangster Squad Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Gangster Squad Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
There'll be those who wholeheartedly enjoy Gangster Squad. Then there will be those who'll be ready to pull the trigger before it even starts killing everything that moves; those dissatisfied with its endless clichés and tough guy melodrama, unimpressed with its script and performances, and disappointed that a movie with a cast this talented failed to put them to good use. It so desperately wants to rub shoulders with The Untouchables, L.A. Confidential and the classics of Gangland cinema, but it isn't in the same league, much less the same sphere. Warner's Blu-ray release, on the other hand, gets just about everything right. Regardless of whether you love or hate the film, its video transfer is terrific, its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is a show-stopper and its supplemental package has plenty of extras to go around. At the very least, a rental is in order.
Gangster Squad: Other Editions
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