gangster_squad_ver2One of the big holes in the mainstream film world over the past twenty years has frankly been the absence of Sean Penn. There’s no denying he’s one of the most talented people in the film business but aside from adult fare like Mystic River or retard porn like I Am Sam he’s been either on the fringe or directing great small movies. Sean Penn shreds every second of Gangster Squad he’s in. Even when graced with hammy dialogue, the man is a powerhouse and wholly understanding the heightened tone of the piece and owning it.

His performance alone makes the film worth seeing.

The film itself is a hybrid of The Untouchables and LA Confidential, though nowhere near as memorable as either. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a high profile star-studded clone every decade or so. In fact it’s necessary. Gangster Squad keeps the subgenre going, a fun and cynicism free crime action romp that doesn’t do anything great but juggles a lot of characters and beats admirably.

That sounds a bit like apologism.

A mixture of a prototypical crime syndicate story and a “getting the team together” tale, Ruben Fleischer’s film captures the vintage Los Angeles vistas and settings perfectly and bathes in the period and its suits and hats and delightfully bulbous automobiles. It certainly helps the viewer forget how threadbare and on rails the plot is but even when the seams show there’s always Sean Penn to rein the viewer in or a fun action beat or the sheer joy of watching Robert Patrick getting his due on the grand stage. That’s the secret to Gangster Squad. Oddball but effective casting. And safe directing.

Ruben Fleischer was very effective on Zombieland and it’s his mainstream leaning that hurt 30 Minutes or Less, a film that should have been blacker than night and more sinister than A-Kon’s success. He’s not pasteurized as a filmmaker but his edginess is palatable for studio executives. As a result, a very well done car chase at the center of the film helps hedge bets. Some of the more loose elements of the storytelling or some familiar moments are made less glaring by brilliant slow-motion photography in the gunfights. Little fun things like that help erase how loony the staging and realism often is.

But in the end Sean Penn is all you need. His Mickey Cohen is awesome. I could watch twelve movies like this if he was the Big Bad.

There’s a Hole in My Brolin.

This is probably the last hurrah for Josh Brolin as an A-Lister and it’s a shame. Though his character is super square just seeing the actor in a role like this does so much good work for the film before frame one. Brolin’s a very good actor who has climbed Everest in terms of expectations over the past two decades and it’s a blast watching him work. His interplay with Ryan Gosling is solid, he looks great in the period costuming, and you believe him as a man of action. He’s a stocky stunted genius and there’s no way this film is going to deliver him to the next phase, one several dimensions divorced of Jonah Hex. He’ll get plenty of work but I don’t know if he can withstand this not being a big hit.

Digital, great. Looking digital, awful.

This film is gorgeous. Until the climactic fight scene and then it looks like it was shot by one of Coca-Cola’s Refreshing Filmmakers. Digital film is a huge tool and an amazing and versatile evolution in art. It’s still susceptible to bad decisions, just like any medium is. So when the film looks fantastic for an hour and a half and there’s no sign of the digital pitfalls some films fall into it completely takes the viewer out of the movie when there’s a fight scene that looks digital and like it was projected at 48fps. I don’t believe this was the scene reshot because of the Aurora movie theater massacre and even if it was there’s no excuse. Shame on you for letting this scene nearly scuttle my liking of your movie, Mr. Fleischer. Unacceptable.

Speaking of Aurora.

Horrible tragedy but I really hate when movies are forced to change their structure because of real life. America’s Sadness ought to have an assistant editor credit.

A little casting goes a long way.

Robert Patrick as a cowboy. Amazing. Holt McCallany. Great. Strike Back‘s awesome Sullivan Stapleton doing a spot-on Russell Crowe impersonation. Fantastic.

Oh, but Giovani Ribisi is fine in the film but the only thing more pigeonholed in this world than him being cast as a quirky nerd is a really attractive, loose, and relationship-free pigeon. Enough already. Someone cast Ribisi as a regular dude who just happens to look Other Sister-y. Also, the actor deserves the distinction of being in Glengarry-lite Boiler Room and Untouchables-lite Gangster Squad. Here’s hoping I cast him in my Caligula-lite Penistown.

The evolution is nearly complete.

In six day’s time Nick Nolte will officially transcend the astral plane and go from being a human man to a sentient grumble.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

Nick On… Is my new ongoing movie review column. The goal is to distill things a little and make it a little more playful and easier to digest rather than the long form. Hope you like. Please let me know what you think as there will be many of these coming and the goal always is to improve. Please share and whatnot.

– Nick (Twitter, Facebook)

Previously: The Impossible. John Dies at the End. Texas Chainsaw 3-D.