Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Gangster Squad (2013/US)

Julien Faddoul

0 stars

d – Ruben Fleischer
w – Will Beall   (Based on the Book by Paul Lieberman)
ph – Dion Bebee
pd – Maher Ahmed
m – Steve Jablonsky
ed – Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert
cos – Mary Zophres

p – Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadross

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick

Any strict auteurist will tell you that there is a reason why the script is the only part of a movie that can be thrown into a trash bin. One of the pre-suppositions of the auteur theory is that a bad screenplay can be made into a cinematic triumph with a great director. It’s hard to tell what Ruben Fleischer thought he could accomplish when he was given the script of Gangster Squad, let alone what he thought it was about. I think it’s best not to think about it too much, for Will Beall, the screenwriter, and Mr Fleischer are making two different movies.

Mr Fleischer began his directing career in music videos and television commercials until 2009 with his unexpected hit Zombieland. Gangster Squad is his third picture (after the very modest 30 Minutes or Less) and it’s still very difficult to see what the big deal is. Both of his previous films are nothing but embezzled sequences from other films, yet hardly anyone seemed to notice. I think this will be impossible this time-round because Gangster Squad is such a hackneyed piece of thievery that if one erased the director’s name and replaced with Jean-Luc Godard, it would be hailed as a masterpiece.

The films that Gangster Squad pinches from include: The Public Enemy, Dick Tracy, L.A. Confidential, Little Caesar, The Untouchables, Bugsy, Miller’s Crossing, Chinatown, Scarface, Mulholland Falls, Bloodhounds of Broadway (that’s right, even bad movies), The Killing, Pulp Fiction and Bonnie & Clyde, just to name a few. Now, one of two things could have happened: either Mr Fleischer has never seen even a frame of any of these movies, or he read this script, smelled its stale putrescence and decided to use an abundance of style and aesthetic to turn water into wine. I’m inclined to go with the latter.

The style is opulent – the film begins with the Warner Bros logo with the colour de-saturated (another clue that Mr Fleischer was inspired by The Public Enemy and other great gangster pictures of that time) and goes on to add a pleasurable onslaught of campy relics, such as Cadillacs, Studebakers, Packards, Hudsons, cafeteria diners, the Union Station etc. The plot itself, which is based on the non-fiction book by Paul Lieberman, entails six LAPD cops (the squad in question) who are assigned to hunt and take-down crime-boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Though not everything goes according to plan, intelligences are insulted, good-guys become bad-guys and a lot of bodies are left for dead.

These cops are played by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Giovanni Ribisi. The names of their characters are unimportant. Emma Stone plays Grace, Mickey’s ingénue girlfriend with zero interesting things to say. The ensuing story that these characters are put through is ludicrous to say the least – and very violent, although Mr Fleischer is not the first director to confuse style with violence.

This is all so audaciously lurid – with Mr Gosling's high-pitched voice, Mr Penn’s high-pitched everything, Dion Beebe’s opportunistic photography and Steve Jablonsky awkward score – that Mr Fleischer never finds the right tone for the very aesthetic he is applying to the actual tone of the film, but there's only so much style can do to spiff up shrivelled substance. The only part of this cacophony who adds any kind of purity is Nick Nolte, playing a grizzly police chief. Purity is the road that Mr Fleischer should have taken, fixing the screenplay first and then adding the style. It’s true that the script is the only part of a movie that can be thrown into a trash bin. I guess there weren’t any on set.


  1. Nice summary. I got half-way through this film when I realised that it was supposed to be an over-the-top "Dick Tracy meets 1960s Batman" sort of film. I then proceeded to enjoy it for about 20 minutes, when it started taking itself seriously again.

    They should've just embraced the campiness.

    1. Ya-huh. At least campiness comes tone. This is all over the place.