‘Gangster Squad’ goes for gorgeous gloss over true grit

Gangster Squad/2013/Warner Bros./113 min.

The much-hyped new neo-noir “Gangster Squad,” set in 1949 Los Angeles, falls prey to the same stereotypical failing that marks some Angelinos, then and now: It’s a wannabe. On the plus side, the movie is glossy looking and elegantly styled (many famous locations, from Slapsy Maxie’s to Clifton’s Cafeteria, are stunningly presented) with a star-studded cast.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer, there’s action aplenty, though it never feels like there’s much at stake. And its superficial, often cartoonish, virtues are undercut by a weak script, uneven performances and tepid emotion.

That’s too bad, given the long-standing allure of vintage LA and the fascinating source material for the film: Paul Lieberman’s crime saga, “Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles,” which was based on the work of a secret LAPD unit that aimed to guard the city against gangsters. (The book began as a 2008 LA Times series.)

Their primary target: the ruthless and immensely powerful mob leader Mickey Cohen, portrayed in the film by Sean Penn. Josh Brolin plays ambitious good cop Sgt. John O’Mara (married and devoted to his wife); Ryan Gosling turns in another spare, cool performance as the wayward Sgt. Jerry Wooters who tangles with Cohen’s supposed mistress (Emma Stone). A growling, leonine Nick Nolte as police chief William H. Parker must muddle through lines like this one, addressed to O’Mara: “Los Angeles is a damsel in distress. And I need you to save her.”

Penn’s Cohen has similar clunkers. He tells us: “Back east, I was a gangster, out here I’m God.”

The strong cast does what it can, with Brolin, Gosling and Stone making the best of what they are given. But, thanks to Will Beall’s cliche-ridden script, Nolte starts to get mannered and Penn gives us a 2-D Cohen, unrelentingly brutal and ever-menacing. As talented as Penn is, he doesn’t seem to connect with this character and physically he’s an odd choice to play a brawny baby-faced former boxer. In 1949, Cohen was 36; Penn is 52. And if you know much of Cohen’s backstory (he avoided sex because of his OCD disorder), it’s hard to buy into the love-triangle element of this story, which is only very loosely based on fact.

“L.A. Confidential” this is not. But if you fancy gorging on some glitzy eye candy, this should do nicely.

“Gangster Squad” opens today nationwide. You can read author Tere Tereba’s piece Beyond the Gangster Squad: the Real Mickey Cohen here. Tere’s book on Cohen was selected  by KCET as one of the best books of 2012. 

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‘Cape Fear’ shows Mitchum at his most menacing, most noir

Cape Fear/1962/Universal Pictures/105 min.

From the moment Robert Mitchum appears in “Cape Fear” with his slow swagger, Southern drawl and serious mean spirit, there’s no doubt he’s a tour-de-force bad guy. In fact, he is one of cinema’s greatest psychos. His character Max Cady ranks No. 28 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 50 villains of all time.

Gregory Peck

The plot is straightforward but it’s a story that simmers with tension. Ex-con Max Cady puts the blame for his recent stint in jail squarely on the man who testified against him: Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck, who also helped produce), a prominent lawyer in a small Southern town. Seeking revenge for the eight years he spent behind bars, Cady launches a campaign of terror against Bowden and his family that culminates in a life-and-death struggle in a moonlit swamp.

The 1962 film, still chilling today, had all the ingredients for success: accomplished director J. Lee Thompson (who also made Peck’s 1962 adventure classic, “The Guns of Navarone”), a near-perfect cast, top-notch material (James R. Webb’s screenplay is based on John D. MacDonald’s novel “The Executioners”), a Bernard Herrmann score, cinematography by Sam Leavitt, art direction by Robert Boyle and editing by George Tomasini.

Herrmann, Boyle and Tomasini were frequent collaborators with Alfred Hitchcock. Of shooting in black and white, director Thompson said, “I thought the black and the shadows would enhance the story and color might spoil it.”

The cast includes TV comedienne Polly Bergen as Sam’s wife Peggy, Lori Martin as their daughter, Martin Balsam (“Psycho’s” ill-fated detective) as police chief Mark Dutton, Telly Savalas as gumshoe Charlie Sievers and Barrie Chase as Diane, a goodtime girl victimized by Cady.

To Peck’s credit, he understood that Mitchum’s character was more dynamic than steadfast and respectable Sam Bowden. Mitchum makes even a quick line, such as, “You sweatin’ a little, huh counselor?” glow with burning malice.

Thompson says in the making-of feature in the DVD, “Greg was conscious the whole time that the villain was the colorful part and that Mitchum was playing it beautifully. And he let him run with it. … The way [Peck] played the part and the strength he showed, it became a very good battle between the two men. It was wonderful teamwork between the two.”

Thompson also recalls the way Mitchum embraced the role. “This part is a drunk, a rapist and a violent man, and I live my parts,” Mitchum told him. “It was sort of a warning that we might have some stormy passages during the making of the film … and we did have some stormy passages,” laughs Thompson. [Read more…]

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