Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gangster Squad

The new year starts with a bang – zillions of ‘em – in “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer’s postwar-L.A. “Gangster Squad,” an unexpectedly pleasurable entertainment made with copious amounts of humor and a lightness of spirit never hinted at in the trailers.

What a cast Fleischer’s assembled! The squad comprises Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie (from 2010’s great “Night Catches Us”), Giovanni Ribisi (hilarious in 2011’s “The Rum Diary”), and Michael Peña (terrific in 2011’s “30 Minutes or Less” and on his way to stardom with last year’s “End of Watch”). At the behest of police chief Nick Nolte, they go after Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen, who aims to skim simoleons from every wire wager placed west of the Mississippi. Emma Stone plays Mickey’s moll Grace, who risks everything to fool around with Gosling.

Though the picture’s not a comedy per se, each player gets comic mileage out of his or her character. Gosling does it with his effortless sexiness; the squad infiltrates Cohen’s compound, where Grace plants a long wet kiss on Gosling to the incredulous stares of his colleagues. Patrick and Peña share a very funny scene in which Peña makes the mistake of wondering aloud whether the old-timer can still shoot. And Mackie keeps up a hilarious running commentary (à la Johnny Carson) about Burbank – where Mickey runs a casino – including one line so good the audience stopped to applaud.

Most reviews of “Gangster Squad” have focused on its look and compared it unfavorably to a clearly superior picture, “L.A. Confidential.” It’s not trying to be that movie. Yeah, Fleischer’s decked out eight or ten locations in period décor, but they never look like anything but sets; he doesn’t pretend to paint a complete picture of the city. Rather, he wants everyone to let loose and have fun, starting with Penn.

Sure, Penn’s on an all-scenery diet (in other news, the sky is blue). But there’s an over-the-top bluster and a coiled-spring wiriness to him (Mickey was a boxer before his career change) reminiscent of his good work in, say, “Carlito’s Way.” He too has some very funny moments, as when he comments on incorruptible lawmen: “A cop who won’t take bribes? He’s like a dog with rabies. There’s no cure for that. He has to be put out of his misery.” And Mickey loves L.A., loves its openness and possibility. “Living in New York, you’re a rat in a maze. You wouldn’t believe how fucking filthy that town is.”

I even enjoyed the – extreme, unflinching – violence. Rarely have I seen a man literally chained between two cars and torn apart as they drive in opposite directions, as Mickey does to one Chicago gangster (a warning to future interlopers). A couple of his own guys fuck up. One gets sent down an elevator shaft set ablaze with acetylene. Another has his screaming face mashed to mush by a power drill, as Fleischer segues to Mickey flipping a hamburger patty on the grill. It’s that kind of a movie

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