In 1987, one of the best ‘gangster’ movies ever made was in theaters. The Untouchables was by director Brian De Palma and featured Kevin Costner and Sean Connery taking down Robert de Niro’s Al Capone.
The movie was gritty, cool and slick. It’s one of Kevin Costner’s best (non-baseball) movies. Sean Connery was perfect and deNiro was Oscar nominated. The baseball bat should have also been nominated. The movie featured a scene with a staircase and a baby carriage that is infamous…to the point it was spoofed in a Naked Gun movie.
Flash forward to 2013 and we get Gangster Squad. It’s not nearly as good as the Untouchables.
Mickey Cohen was a real-life crime lord who was born in 1913 in New York. He moved to the West Coast, trained as a boxer, and won several prizefights throughout the 30s. During prohibition he moved to Chicago, where he met Al Capone. He had a brief stint in prison, went back west and worked with Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel while setting up the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. In 1950 – he was investigated along with other gangsters and was convicted of tax evasion. He spent four years in prison, then was released and became an international celebrity due to running floral shops, paint stores, nightclubs, paint stores, casinos, gas stations, and a men’s haberdashery and being a man-about-town in Hollywood. In 1961 he was convicted of tax evasion again and sent to Alcatraz, where another inmate tried to kill him with a lead pipe. He was released in 1972 and toured the country until he died in his sleep in 1976. That’s the true backstory, I provide it so that you can compare it to the movie.
The movie takes place in 1949 – Mickey Cohen has become the most powerful figure in the Los Angeles underworld. He has bought many police, and because of this, it’s impossible to make charges stick. The police chief has an upstanding un-buyable Eliot Ness type pull together a squad of other un-buyable standup cops. The officer’s wife goes through the files with him and they pull together a squad that includes a young hotshot who is familiar with the gangster hangouts and lifestyles; an African American cop who has been struggling to keep Cohen’s drugs out of his neighborhood; an early tech genius (in a contemporary movie – he’d be the computer hacker); a wild west relic gunslinger and his Mexican-American sidekick. They leave their badges at home, and begin to take down Cohen’s operations. The hotshot woos Cohen’s girl – or dame – as the case may be in this movie. Eventually Cohen figures out who they are and starts going after their families. Eventually the dame witnesses Cohen killing someone, and agrees to testify. The squad has to arrest Cohen, which proves difficult because he has rented every room in a hotel, and fortified it with his goons. The cops break through the lines of goons, leading to a staircase scene that made me look for a baby carriage. Eventually Cohen makes a run for it, leading to an epic fistfight (remember, he was a boxer) by a fountain, leading to his arrest.
Gangster Squard is directed by Ruben Fleischer, who will direct the upcoming Zombieland 2, and previous to this had done 30 Minutes or Less. It’s shot well, and has some zippy action sequences. The dialogue choices were a little strange, a lot of characters/actors were doing that old gangster-style speak, “Yah palie, see?” You know what I mean. Not everyone is doing it, which really makes it stand out when someone does do it. The movie has a pulpy – comic book feel to it, the blood from all the gun fights is over the top. Kudos to the creators for pulling the movie theater shoot ‘em up scene after the Aurora-Colorado tragedy.The cast is good -
· Sean Penn went through 3 hours of makeup every morning to portray Mickey Cohen. If you look up pictures of the real Mickey Cohen, he looks a little like him, only a little. It makes me wonder if the three hours of makeup was worth it. It is not good, and is almost distracting. I also feel like Penn is too much in this movie, over the top to the point of comical and not really threatening.
· Josh Brolin plays Sgt. John O’Mara and really, this is his movie. Despite the amount of Gosling in the commercials and trailers; this is a Brolin movie. And, he does a really good job. He’s completely believable as one of the last good cops left in L.A., just back from the war, and weary of all the crime, and the inability of the cops to eliminate the source of the crime. Mireille Enos plays his wife, Connie, who helps put together the squad and is pregnant most of the movie, to give O’Mara a reason to be concerned about his actions – making the world a better place for his unborn child and all.
· Ryan Gosling plays Sgt. Jerry Wooters, like O’Mara, just back from the war. Wooters, however, is living it up a little bit more, going to clubs, making friends with low-level gangsters and wooing Cohen’s dame, Grace Faraday. I am not a Gosling fan (I really don’t understand why women love him – maybe it’s the Notebook, which I have never seen). He is very stiff in this movie, but it sort of fits the character. He seems to be playing almost the same guy from Crazy Stupid Love, which makes him come off as one-dimensional.
· Emma Stone plays Grace Faraday, Cohen’s dame, who is teaching him etiquette. She knows he’s dangerous, but can’t find a way out. Until of course, Wooters comes along to fall for her and convince her to stand up to Cohen. Emma Stone is amazing, but that doesn’t really come across in this movie – not her fault, the character is written flat, and she does the best she can with what she’s got.
· Nick Nolte plays Chief Parker, and is grumpy, gruff, and determined – so, really Nick Nolte is playing himself a little bit, just with better clothes. A reminder – if you haven’t seen his performance in Warrior, check it out.
· The wonderful Anthony Mackie plays Officer Coleman Harris, and while he gets to dress almost as good as he did in The Adjustment Bureau, he gets stuck with the lamest joke in the movie, the old “I hate Burbank” joke, which – to be honest – plays in one city in this country, and he says it a couple of times. Not his fault, and he’s great at the rest of the scenes.
· Robert Patrick plays a character that seems to be an old Wild West gunslinger who started working for the LAPD once the Wild West started disappearing. Officer Max Kennard is the most accurate shot on the force, something that comes in handy when firing your way through piles of low-level gangsters who have barricaded their boss in a hotel. Michael Pena plays Kennard’s partner/protégé Officer Navidad Ramirez. Pena is eager and fun, and has a great relationship with Patrick’s character.
· Giovanni Ribisi plays Officer Conway Keeler and he’s fine in this. He gets stuck with the character who has a family: wife and son. Brolin’s character states right up front that none of the other guys have family, so Keeler will have more to lose. Keeler gives a speech about how he has to stop the bad guys again for his family – it’s a speech that reminded me of Dead Meat in Hot Shots. As soon as he says it, you know he’s going to be the first one eliminated.
· Troy Garity plays Cohen’s sidekick Wrevock. He has no lines, but does have a creepy bad-eye makeup – so, you know, visual gimmick. He is not anywhere near Billy Drago’s Frank Nitti – but he tries. He’s very intimidating, until you remember that he was in Barbershop.The movie moves quickly, and like I said, has a comic – pulpy feel. The problem is that I’m not sure that’s what they wanted it to feel like. Oh well, it’s worth checking out.
6 out of 10. Gained points for Patrick – his character was just cool. Lost points for Penn’s performance, and makeup, and dialect. Gained points for the clothes, nifty. Lost points for the predictability.
Bonus Video 1: 1991’s Mobsters: Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsy, Richard Grieco, and Costas Mandylor attempt to bring sexy to gangsters.
Bonus Video 2: Hot Shots…the character of Dead Meat cracks me up – and now I see that character in almost every movie!
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews!