A gangster script that should’ve stayed untouched

The burgeoning Los Angeles of the late 1940s – a time when the city was in post-war flux, a development spree was well underway, and as a consequence the mostly Jewish East Coast mob (known as the Kosher Nostra) was moving in on southern California – has long been a moth and flame scenario for setting films relating to organised crime. It is no great surprise then that Gangster Squad, based on real-life New York mobster and former boxer Mickey Cohen, is happy to burn its wings alongside past forays into this genre such as Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991), Lee Tamahori’s Mulholland Falls (1996), which focused on the lawless law hired to tackle these largely Jewish newcomers, and LA Confidential (1997). In Bugsy, Cohen was on his way up in the mid-1940s and portrayed by Harvey Keitel, while in LA Confidential, at the height of his influence, by Paul Guilfoyle.

In this lazy, heavy-handed and concrete-booted rendition, Cohen’s psychopathic nature is unravelled by a slitheringly sadistic Sean Penn, and the film wastes little time in clarifying this, opening with him using a pair of cars to rip a Chicago rival in half in the shadow of the ‘Hollywoodland’ sign, thus establishing him as a tyrannical force bent on burning down everything around him. His West Coast crime syndicate is based on drugs, prostitution and gambling, and with high-ranking police, judges and politicians in his pocket, Cohen is essentially above the law. This doesn’t sit too well with Sgt John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a decorated, fist-flinging Second World War vet willing to go vigilante when the situation demands. Unsurprisingly, demand is swiftly satiated as O’Mara stages a solo assault on a Cohen-run brothel, effectively establishing O’Mara’s act-first, think-later attitude. Unfortunately, this pathos seems to have also infected the filmmakers, resulting in an utterly predictable and tiringly tedious plot and characters as stiff and colourless as their starched white collars.  

The film is little more than a weak-wristed remake of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, in which Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness recruits an elite band of misfit cops to break Al Capone’s stranglehold on prohibition-era Chicago. This formula is unashamedly cloned in Gangster Squad, offering a mirror-image set of satellite characters that are so similar to those in The Untouchables that one feels genuinely offended by the lack of effort – from the supportive but fearful wife, the platitude-spouting old timer, the geeky, mild-mannered technical one, and so on. Even the fates of these characters remain unaltered, so it will require little imagination to work out which of them survive and which succumb to the endless and stale series of shootouts that form the backbone of this tepid and listless effort.

Furthermore, Gangster Squad doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. On the one hand, it is highly stylised and precise in its aesthetics, but it also possesses allusions to pulp and pastiche. The set decorations are rich and appear well researched, with plenty of neon lights and wavy haired damsels in blindingly red dresses with lipstick to match. Art-deco is all the rage, shell casings ping off marble floors during gunfights, and the soundtrack boasts a playlist of suitable period tracks. However, it is simply too bright and shiny to be film noir, and too formulaic and shallow to be taken seriously as a hard-hitting indictment of the times. Untouchable is certainly a fine way of regarding this film, but if you do insist, a barge pole is highly recommended.

Gangster Squad

Dir: Ruben Fleischer; US action/crime, 2013, 113 mins; Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte
Premieres January 17
Playing nationwide

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