Blu-Ray Review: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad was saddled with kind of a no-win situation. Originally positioned as a year-end prestige movie, it not only followed an incident of real-life gun violence, but real-life gun violence perpetrated in a manner similar to a scene in the film itself. This period gangster drama featured a scene in which there was a shootout in a movie theater. After shootings at a theater showing The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, CO, Warner Brothers delayed the film and replaced the movie theater scene out of sensitivity. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I don’t think Gangster Squad had any business in awards season except as counter-programming. It is a hardcore action movie, and I respect it for that, even if it might disappoint the filmmakers.

Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is the baddest mob boss in 1949 L.A., or at least the only one attracting all the cops in this movie. Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) wants to do what’s right, even though the department works around Cohen. Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) doesn’t really care about much, although he does go the extra mile of seducing Cohen’s girlfriend Grace (Emma Stone). The chief (Nick Nolte) puts O’Mara in charge of a squad to make things difficult for Cohen, though not arrest or kill him. Officer Kennard (Robert Patrick) joins the squad, and he is basically a trick shot, like from a cowboy movie.

It’s an interesting take that a division of the police department just messed with the mob rather than building a case against them. It means the whole mission is just a series of action sequences, and those sequences are well done. It’s really slick and energetic, and there’s a notable montage thrown in for good measure. The film really emphasizes gunfights and brawling to a macho degree that’s amazing. By the time it builds up to the final mano a mano, Gangster Squad basically a Stallone movie. I couldn’t believe this was how the movie was ending, but I loved it. 

It’s highly entertaining to see well-composed period detail and Ruben Fleischer’s command of the camera working to give us what is essentially a cheap thrill. The cops get the bad guys, but they do it with style. Panache, if you will. Actually, there’s at least one other level to it. They piss Cohen off, then Cohen fights back, so that an even baser emotional throughline (double revenge) is involved. And it’s glorious.

Seeing Penn, Gosling, Brolin, Stone and squad members Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Giovani Ribisi, and Michael Peña act the hell out of it adds to the entertainment value. I mean, we’re getting a good show from Hollywood’s A-list. They may have been aiming for Oscar but they should be proud to have made a solid piece of pure entertainment too. Mireille Enos (who plays O’Mara’s wife Connie), plays the best cop’s wife I think I’ve ever seen in a movie. Gosling does a voice that says everything about his character before we even get to know him.

It might’ve been cool if they’d really done an old school practical gangster movie with today’s actors, but then it wouldn’t be a kickass action movie. There’s no denying modern Hollywood though. Fight scenes employ the same modern martial arts taught to all actors for action movies. Mob torture scenes and various kills can be explicit thanks to CGI, like a horror movie that stopped trying to convey violence with prosthetics and went wild with digital effects. They can do CGI flames, and digitally make L.A. look like the ‘40s again. But we know what CGI cities look like. So they managed to make a modern gangster movie, but only by making it look like everything else. However, the handheld camera is used sparingly so by emphasizing elegant cinematography it’s elevated way above the modern norm.

They certainly leave no cliché behind. Gangsters cryptically mention bodies buried in the Mojave desert. When something happens in the movie to make Wooters care, it’s a pretty blatant cliché​. I mean, they cut from a head mutilation to a hamburger patty on a grill, for Christ’s sake. There are lots of slow motion shots of people diving for cover from gunfire. But, on the plus side, it does these things right. A special trick Patrick’s character teaches Peña’s pays off at the end of the movie, as it damn well should if it’s set up in the training montage!

The Blu-Ray looks phenomenal. It’s a gritty underworld look with lots of shadow, making sharp lines within crisp figures in a rich, textured scene. Lots of dark streets and back alleys fit this aesthetic. The more glamorous settings are full of bright color, like Slapsy Maxie’s glowing blue dance club or numerous suburban backyards shining green. Even Union Station looks like the golden archway to heaven. It looks like L.A. Confidential, even if it’s not quite the layered crime story that L.A. Confidential was.

The high definition picture makes every tough guy extra scowly. Sean Penn has a prosthetic nose and some fake eyebrows but the scowl is all acting. He out-scowls the entire cast put together, but everyone displays a pretty grizzled chin except for Gosling, whose charm provides a nice contrast. The scruff on those scowls is palpable in HD. There’s a beautiful sunrise in crisp Blu-ray detail too. The CG enhancements creating 1949 Los Angeles might betray themselves as too polished in HD, but you can definitely see all the detail in the work.

Bonus features: There are 16 short, 2-to-4-minute featurettes covering all aspects of the film. They’re fluff, but lots of fluff adds up to some insight. The most interesting parts are when they interview surviving members of the real Gangster Squad, or their children. They never go really in depth but it’s a firsthand account mixed in. One tidbit they mention in a Mickey Cohen spot is that Cohen had a publicist. I would have liked to see that in the film. The film conveys that he was a self-promoter about his criminal reputation, but that’s some balls to actually hire someone to promote it for you.

“Rogue’s Gallery: Mickey Cohen” is the most informative feature. It’s a cheesy 45-minute DVD documentary in standard definition with stock footage and re-enactments, but it will actually tell you about Mickey Cohen, all the stuff that’s not in the movie. “Tough Guys With Style” is another fluff piece with the actors talking about the story of the movie, probably created for airing on movie channels.

The deleted scenes do not include the movie theater scene. That’s probably the only scene anyone’s curious about, and it’s another no-win. How could they include it? Either it’s still insensitive, or it’s a really good scene and we’re all mad it couldn’t be in the film. Of what is included, Anthony Mackie gets an action scene, and there’s a fairly significant moment between Grace and Wooters.

Ruben Fleischer gives a practical commentary, walking us through how each scene was made. The most analytical he gets is to admit that he wanted to fill the movie with as much action as he could to make it entertaining. It’s not a documentary, he says. I appreciate that. Otherwise, he speaks consistently and always has information to share. A video feature, “The Gangland Files,” just presents the 16 short featurettes made during the course of the movie presented chronologically. It’s up to you if you prefer to watch them that way. There is also a “pop-up factoids” track, and some then-and-now images of some of the locations, so that’s cool.

Considering the stigma attached to the film’s delay and alteration, I was expecting this to be a much harder review to write. It’s really pretty easy. Gangster Squad is awesome, so let me count the ways. There’s no shame in enjoying a delayed, re-shot movie. They made it work and it’s still a visceral thrill.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.


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