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Film Review: Gangsters and Politicians

Gangsters and Politicians

By Casey Dorman


Gangster Squad: Directed by Ruben Fleischer, written by Will Beall, starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

Broken City: Directed by Allen Hughes, written by Brian Tucker, starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones

The best hardboiled crime stories take place in southern California—the classic novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, or modern writers such as James Elroy. In film, the standouts are  LA Confidential, which captures the noir genre and fifties Los Angeles, not to mention being based upon an Elroy story, and such other classics as The Big SleepMulholland Falls, China Town,  of course, and the 1975 version of  Farewell My Lovely, starring Robert Mitchum.

I had been waiting breathlessly for the new fifties LA crime film, Gangster Squad, to open.  I knew the story’s background, my sources of knowledge being Elroy’s novels and Wikipedia (What? I wasn’t planning to write a term paper). I was looking for period clothing and cars, snappy, tough-guy dialogue, constant smoking and plenty of guns and bare knuckles. I wasn’t disappointed by the costumes or the cars or even the cigarette smoking. It was all there, plus some nifty Hollywood nightclub sets that brought back the era as I imagined it. It wasn’t noir—there was just too much color and not enough shadow—but it had style.  Josh Brolin fit into  the hardboiled cop role like he was slipping into a pair of well-worn  gloves, although his character seemed to be a nonsensical mix of tender husband and merciless avenger.  Emma Stone could have been hanging on the arm of Mitchum or Bogart or even, instead of Sean Penn, James Cagney   (whom Penn seems to be imitating), although it was never clear why she was on Penn’s arm or why she was immediately attracted to Gosling (“across a crowded room” – OK women, only a man would ask why she was attracted to Gosling).  Ryan Gosling was more Jack Nicholson than Bogart, but he added depth in a movie that most of the time looked more like The Untouchables than the genre film I was expecting. There were just too many guns, too much shooting, too many special effects and even too much stretching of the truth.  I mean, if a film is based on true events (the LAPD squad that was out to disrupt Mickey Cohen’s crime operation was real), then it shouldn’t depart too much from actual history.  Mickey Cohen wasn’t sent to prison for murder, as the film shows, but for income tax evasion, years after the events of the film. And he really was a prize fighter, so how could Brolin, an ex-GI and cop, no matter how hardboiled he was, beat him up at the end of the movie? Most of all, the film was predictable, pretty much devoid of suspense (except for wondering when Cohen was going to catch his girl friend going out with the Gosling character—right under his nose, by the way), and as much over the top with gratuitous violence and gunfire as Scarface.

Broken City was another matter. In some sense it had all the things that Gangster Squad lacked but missed the assets of the other movie.  Modern New York isn’t fifties Hollywood, but the settings of Broken City were so ordinary that I had to keep reminding myself where this was all happening. And Russell Crowe, although he does a masterful job of being a ruthless politician, just doesn’t look like the mayor of New York, especially when we know who the mayor of New York is. Better to have let the setting remain unnamed.

I’ve read a few other reviews of  Broken City and most of them are severely critical of the screen writing. Admittedly there are parts of the plot that either don’t seem to fit or else go nowhere (what happened to the relationship between the Mark Wahlberg character and his girlfriend, so much a part of the first half of the movie, for instance?). But at least there is a plot, there is little shooting beyond the opening scene, and there is genuine suspense concerning what is being covered up by whom as well as real surprises, such as that the man we thought was having an affair with the mayor’s wife is not having an affair but doing something else entirely (something we find out only indirectly, just as does the detective played by Wahlberg).  There are plot twists that don’t make sense: why was the mayor’s wife trying to find dirt on him and why would the man who found it give it to her instead of to his boss, the other candidate? But still, as a member of the audience, you try to follow the story line. Because, unlike most current Hollywood movies, there is one.  I found a plot-driven film such as this, with fine acting by Crowe and Wahlberg a real relief.

Broken City would have been the perfect noir film. The Mark Wahlberg character is a well-intentioned, simmering-with- anger, alcoholic, forced to become a private eye because he was drummed off the police force. The city government run by Russell Crowe is rotten and there are behind the scenes activities taking place between the mayor’s wife and someone else—either a politician or a cop. It’s a James Elroy world that reeks of fifties LA but isn’t.  There are even the requisite snappy lines, spoken by the lead characters (although they are not confined to the hero, as they would be in a true detective story). The plot maybe would have made more sense if it had taken place sometime in the past and not in modern New York. And a few Sunset Boulevard or Beverly Hills scenes would have given it style—the one thing that was sorely lacking in this film. Still, I enjoyed it much more than Gangster Squad, just because it made me think.


Casey Dorman is Editor-in-Chief of Lost Coast Review and the author of several novels.





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