Gangster Squad


City of angels.

City of angels.

(2013) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Jon Polito, Mireille Enos, Austin Abrams, Lucy Davenport . Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Power is something most people covet. Power means control over your own life. For most of us, our desire for power ends there but for others that’s just not enough. They want control over every life, absolute power. Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely.

In postwar Los Angeles, corruption is rampant. The police and politicians are in the pocket of organized crime and in L.A. that means Mickey Cohen (Penn). An ex-boxer and bodyguard from Brooklyn, he has made his way up through the ranks of the Meyer Lansky gang and has been sent West where he has achieved absolute power over the criminal underworld.

Chief Parker (Nolte) realizes that he has lost control of his city and that there is little he can do to regain it. Legal remedies have proven ineffective as he has the corrupt Judge Carter (Aylward) under his thumb, along with a surfeit of politicians and police both in Los Angeles and neighboring Burbank. Parker realizes the only way to deal with Cohen is to go outside the law.

To that end he enlists the help of Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a war hero whose wife (Enos) is very, very pregnant. O’Mara isn’t afraid to stand up to Cohen and knows how to wage guerilla warfare. O’Mara can’t do it alone though so he brings aboard Coleman Harris (Mackie), the so-called Sheriff of Central Avenue who keeps the peace in the largely African-American section of L.A. Harris, who has watched the influx of heroin destroy his community. He jumps at the chance to do something about it at the source.

He also brings in quick draw Max Kennard (Patrick), an old-style gunfighter with an anachronistic moustache and an Old West attitude, and Kennard’s partner Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who idolizes Kennard and wants to make a difference. He also brings in tech whiz (for the era) Conway Keeler (Ribisi) who is the best at tapping wires on the Force.

Finally there’s Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a crack detective who like O’Mara was a hero during the war. Now he’s just trying to keep his head down and stay out of the way of the freight train that is Cohen. Of course, if you’re going to do that you probably shouldn’t fall in love with his girl, who is the beautiful redhead Grace Faraday (Stone) who is ostensibly his etiquette instructor. We all know what she really is though.

Assassinating Cohen won’t do the trick as someone who could well be worse would just rise up and replace him. His whole organization must be smashed to pieces, beyond repair. The Gangster Squad must operate under the radar and in the shadows. Should Cohen find out who they are, not only their lives but the lives of everyone they care about will be in grave danger.

If this sounds very much like The Untouchables, well the similarities are unmistakable. This isn’t the same movie mind you – it lacks the epic scope of the Brian de Palma classic, but it’s cut from the same cloth. However, that cloth has faded and grown a little ratty over the years so it’s not quite the same fit.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn’t have David Mamet writing the script. Not that Will Beall is a bad writer – he isn’t – but he’s not quite at that level, y’know? And this isn’t one of his better works; the script is long on action and short on sense. Quite frankly, the detectives in the Gangster Squad should have been killed many times over. It’s a case of Hollywood baddie bad aim syndrome, and brainless thug disease.

What that winds up doing is wasting another superlative performance by Sean Penn. He radiates menace in the same way as a pit bull does. He can be genial and charming one moment, bloodthirsty and rabid the next. It’s certainly comparable to De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables except more volatile. Yes, you read that right.

Brolin does okay as the hero, although he simply is eaten alive by Penn. Wisely, he doesn’t try to compete so much as support which takes a pretty generous guy considering he is ostensibly the lead character. Gosling in fact makes a better foil for Penn (although they have no scenes together). Brolin is a fine actor in his own right and with the right role can really make some magic but it doesn’t happen here. However Gosling, who has been on a real hot streak, underplays as he usually does and it makes for a good counterpoint to Penn’s theatrics.

Stone is gorgeous to look at but she doesn’t connect with Gosling quite as well as they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, she fills the role nicely and quite frankly the era suits her. In fact, the filmmakers really do capture the era nicely, recreating Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub (a favorite hangout of the real Mickey Cohen) and other Los Angeles/Hollywood landmarks of the time.

This isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It’s just not really distinctive. It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Zombieland which Fleischer helmed back in 2009. He hasn’t really reached that level of creativity since; hopefully the sequel which is currently in the works will bring him back to that standard. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad feels more like a project done to fill the time before he can get something he really wanted to do more.

REASONS TO GO: Penn is mesmerizing. Vision of L.A. in its heyday is well-achieved.

REASONS TO STAY: Shark-jumping ending. Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES: ┬áThere’s quite a bit of gangster-style violence and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Garden of Allah apartment complex, where Wooters lives in the movie, was a real place, a landmark in Hollywood which was famous for some of the people who lived there, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley. It was well-known for the Spanish-Moorish architecture and for the fair number of actors and actresses that lived there. It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a strip mall and a bank.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are unspectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Drive

OLD TIME BOXING LOVERS: There’s a scene where Cohen is watching a film of one of his old boxing matches. Yes, that’s the real Mickey Cohen fighting.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

30 Minutes or Less


30 Minutes or Less

Some guys don't look intimidating at all, even when they have ski masks and guns.

(2011) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Dilshad Vadsaria, Michael Pena, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward, Brett Gelman, Ilyssa Fradin, Paul Tierney, Rebecca Cox, Rick Irwin. Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Ruben Fleischer previously directed the hit horror comedy Zombieland which starred Jesse Eisenberg. Both of them are back for a follow-up, leaving me curious as to just what kind of film we’d be seeing.

Nick (Eisenberg) is a slacker who has been delivering pizzas for awhile. He has little ambition beyond getting stoned and hanging out with his friend Chet (Ansari) who at least has sufficient ambition to rise beyond being a part-time substitute teacher to becoming a full-time one. Neither of them seem to have much drive to move past the surroundings of Grand Rapids, Michigan where they reside. However when they get into a fight and discover their worst secrets – Nick slept with Kate (Vadsaria), Chet’s sister, and Chet was the one responsible for letting Nick’s dad know that his mom slept with a lifeguard, ending their marriage and leading to his dad leaving town for good – the two split up.

Dwayne (McBride) chafes in the shadow of his father, the Major (Ward) who is sitting pretty off of a $10 million lottery win. The Major feels nothing but contempt for his unemployed son, while his son wants his dad to hurry up and expire so he can still inherit what’s left of the lottery fortune, which the Major has been squandering in a hurry. Dwayne and his best friend Travis (Swardson) are chased out of the house by the major and wind up hanging at a local strip bar where a stripper named Juici (Kajlich) implants the idea that Dwayne should kill his dad and inherit now, hinting that she knows someone who can do the deed – for a hundred grand.

But Dwayne and Travis don’t have fifty bucks between them, let alone $100,000 – until Travis suggests robbing a bank, which might not work that well since neither one of them know how. That’s when Dwayne comes up with the brilliant (but demented) idea to get some other schmuck to rob the bank for them. A pizza delivery guy, for example.

Nick is lured to their junkyard with a pizza order; they knock him out and attach a vest to him with an explosive device. When he awakens, the two would-be criminal masterminds tell him he has ten hours to rob the bank and bring $100,000 to them otherwise they’ll detonate the bomb. Nick, panicking, goes to Chet who after initial horror agrees to help his friend on the condition that he never see his sister again.

In the meantime, Juici is plotting with Chango (Pena), the hitman she had referred to – who happens to be her boyfriend – to take the money and run away with her. Double crosses are in the air – everyone is planning to betray everyone else. How will Nick and Chet escape the crossfire, assuming these two slackers can figure out a way to rob the bank?

As good as Zombieland was, 30 Minutes or Less is less consistent. Uneven in its pacing, I get the sense that they couldn’t decide whether to make a caper comedy or a raunchy drug comedy. The movie tends to be better when it goes with the former and less successful when it channels Cheech and Chong.

While all of the main characters have a following and a certain amount of success – Ansari in “Parks and Recreation,” Eisenberg netting an Oscar nomination in The Social Network for example – none of them have been actors I’ve been particularly fond of and to be honest, this movie doesn’t change my mind for any of them other than Swardson, who with his 70s porn star moustache and puppy dog attitude at least displays a certain amount of charm.

None of the rest of the leads are likable enough for me to particularly care much about any of them, a bad thing for a movie. I could forgive that however, if the movie was funny enough to sustain interest but in fact it only does so sporadically. Some of the scenes seem to want to dumb things down until only a one celled creature could possibly find it amusing.

I wish the movie could have been a little more consistent and a little less wishy-washy because it really did have some pretty funny moments. Unfortunately, they were few and far between enough for me to recommend that you find other ways to spend your movie dollars.

REASONS TO GO: Swardson does some nice work and when the movie works, it’s very funny.

REASONS TO STAY: Extremely inconsistent, the pendulum swinging from too raunchy and dumb to smart and funny in a heartbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of crudity, and a little bit of nudity. There is some language most rough and some violence a little tough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an incident eerily similar to the one depicted here when on August 28, 2003, pizza delivery man Bryan Douglas Wells entered a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck in Erie, Pennsylvania with a very similar story. However, it ended badly as the bomb detonated as the police approached, killing Wells instantly.

HOME OR THEATER: Home, more like.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Operation: Endgame