23 January 2013

Review: The Vacuum of L.A. (Gangster Squad)

Gangster Squad starts with Sgt. John O'Meara commenting on the current state of Los Angeles in 1949. Several characters mention the City of Angels has turned into a cesspool since the arrival and subsequent takeover by gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). What we see and are shown never alludes to anything other than a hell-hole, but Sgt. John O'Meara's words must mean something.

To Sgt. O'Meara (Josh Brolin) honor and integrity are tangible things, they can be sought out and reclaimed. He has returned from The War to see his home ravaged and manipulated into a gangster's playground. His wife is pregnant and just wants him to take the check and keep low. After busting up an entire operation by himself, O'Meara has let it be known: he won't take this sitting down.

Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) has taken the opposite approach: retreat into liquor and women because the worst has not gotten here yet. Wooters' apathy hides a great deal, but O'Meara knows better. A travesty outside a nightclub Wooters frequents changes his mind pretty quickly. With the addition of several street-savvy members to the crew, including a gun-slinger and a wireman, O'Meara is ready to take down Cohen.

What follows next is almost cartoonish in its depiction of destabilizing a criminal organization. Faces are bludgeoned to a pulp, cops are out wasting thugs left and right, explosions go unnoticed, every procedure is thrown out the window. One expects tough antics, but when fisticuffs take place instead of slapping cuffs on in every occasion, the film makes it hard to take any of the proceedings seriously.

As jarring as some of those scenes are, the film's true downfall is Sean Penn's Cohen. Penn gnashes his teeth against everything in sight: fellow actors, scenery, his lines. His fierceness is never doubted, but it is hard to picture who would let his man be in charge of anything. Psychopaths tend not to be the masters of economics that they think they are.

On paper, Gangster Squad could easily have been the next Untouchables, but it rarely has the drive or charm that film had. The shoot-outs are loud and often though they leave no mark. For all of the action sandwiched into the runtime, it is hard to care about the stakes. A shame considering the worthwhile cast and lively cinematography. Gangster Squad is so reminiscent of other better flicks that it has no identity of its own.

**/****