Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Gangster Squad"

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To paraphrase the most famous line from Goodfellas: "Almost as far back as I can remember, I was always fascinated with gangsters." I think it started when I was about 7 or 8 and saw a special on the Discovery Channel about Alcatraz, which featured interviews of former inmates and guards. It was how I was introduced to the names Machine Gun Kelly, Al Capone, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis. I bought a kids' book on the infamous 1960's escape attempt with my allowance and read everything else I could get my hands on.

The interest carried over into my teenage years and adulthood. High school friends would exchange odd looks as I read novels like The Last Don over lunch period. Two of my top-10 movies are The Godfather and Goodfellas. I harbor no romantic illusions about the Mafia lifestyle, having heard some brutal stories from my born-and-bred-in-New Jersey parents and grandparents. The point of this tangent is I was immediately sucked in when I saw the trailer for Gangster Squad and knew I had to see it opening weekend.

The movie was inspired by the true story of the efforts exerted by the Los Angeles Police Department to eradicate mobsters' influence from the city in the 1940's and 1950's. Chicago and New York had almost been brought to their knees during Prohibition and the Great Depression. Los Angeles's neighbor to the east, Las Vegas, was becoming Bugsy Siegel's empire.

In 1949, L.A.'s biggest organized-crime threat is Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). The opening scene involves WWII veteran Detective O'Mara (Josh Brolin) raiding a motel that Mickey Cohen has turned into a brothel; many of the women are being held there against their will and had been lured to the place with promises of Hollywood screen tests. O'Mara conducts the raid despite local understanding that Mickey isn't to be touched.

The police chief, tired of the gangland violence and political corruption, calls O'Mara into his office. The chief wants O'Mara to put together a secret squad, which will be allowed to terminate the Mafiosos and their businesses with extreme prejudice. The detectives won't carry badges while they do this since it's not strictly on the up-and-up. The chief is extremely aware that this could cost everyone involved their jobs.

With the help of his pregnant wife, O'Mara recruits a motley crew of L.A.'s finest. Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) aka "Hop-Along" is a grizzled, Wild West-style lawman. Hop-Along brings with him a rookie named Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). Jerry Wooter (Ryan Gosling) is a WWII fighter pilot and something of a functioning alcoholic. Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) is a beat cop brought in from a mostly black section of Los Angeles. Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), former Army intelligence circa WWII, is a family man who does most of the squad's work behind the scenes.

After some target practice in the desert, the guys suit up to take on Mickey Cohen and his crew. Jerry gets himself into trouble almost right away by bedding Grace (Emma Stone). For all intents and purposes, she's Mickey's moll. Mickey learns of the tryst and vows to find whoever dared to touch Grace. Jerry isn't the only one with off-the-clock issues. Hop-Along is staring down his impending retirement (forced or otherwise). O'Mara doesn't like being away from his wife for extended periods when she's on the verge of giving birth.

Having only seen him in Remember the Titans, I wasn't optimistic about Ryan Gosling's ability to pull off playing the rogue cop/action hero. I snickered at the early scenes involving his hard-drinking and perpetually horny character. However, as the movie wore on, I had to admit that he has some serious talent. Jerry's cool, street-smart demeanor makes for an interesting contrast when paired with Ryan Gosling's boyish good looks.

And Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen, holy hell, his name needs to go on the Oscar ballot for this. Mickey is terrifying to watch in just about every scene. His temper is volatile and he used to be a boxer. So even though Mickey has "associates" to do his dirty work for him, he's not above landing a few punches to get a point across. Everything he does is coldly calculated; he hasn't survived this long in organized crime by being stupid.

Gangster Squad is a great addition to the Mafia genre, on par with Martin Scorsese's body of work. There aren't nearly as many "F" bombs in this movie as, say, Goodfellas. The trade-off for this movie is that the violence is more graphic, if you can believe that. I'm not squeamish by any means, but there were a lot of scenes that made me wince; the worst involved coyotes and the Hollywood sign. (Must be seen to be believed). I highly recommend this for my fellow fans of gangster movies and anyone who enjoys action movies.

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