Anne talks film: Gangster Squad

gangstersquadIn the postwar period, the Los Angeles Police Department made a conscious decision to fight organised crime by creating an unofficial, illegal posse known as the Gangster Squad. This unique aspect of the West Coast City has been hinted at in many films such as LA Confidential (1997) and Mulholland Falls (1996), but never been the sole subject of a film till now.
 
Many have compared it unfavourably to LA Confidential, but I would argue that as churlish as that particular film is one of the best ever made, and while Gangster Squad (2013) may not be as good as Confidential, it is by no means a bad film. Some say it is cartoony in comparison, but I would say it is simply more stylized than the earlier film.
 
I was a little confused as to why it’s US release was in January – a traditional dumping-ground reserved for films that are SO bad – where studios typically hope they will make as much money on the film as possible without anyone noticing it. I was even more confused when the end of the film seemed a little more pro-LAPD than Hollywood tends to be these days and certainly more so than Confidential which was also, coincidentally, a Warner Brothers release.
 
But, I have heard that the LAPD are less co-operative these days with productions that put them in a bad light, so I thought maybe this film was some sort of apology for the warts and all portrayal of Los Angeles and its police department in Confidential – perhaps to make way for some other production in the future.
 
What I had forgotten, however, was that the film was originally planned for a September 2012 release, which would have been more suited to a quality film such as Gangster Squad, but the release was then understandably pushed back to make changes after a shooting in a cinema took place in July. The changes comprised some – not insignificant reshoots – that actually altered it quite a bit. For example, a scene involving a shootout at the famous Graumans Chinese theatre was completely removed and replaced with one taking place in the Los Angeles district known as Chinatown.
 
Parts of that original scene did though feature as the climax to the original theatrical trailer, which I happened to see in April 2012. After the shooting it was quickly pulled and reshoots commenced. And between my viewing the original and the new trailer, I actually had forgotten that I saw the original so I looked it back up and recalled not only the parts of that scene, but also my reaction to the original with its darker tone and much less favourable police profile. I was not really interested in seeing the film at that time.
 
Fast forward to November 2012 when I was catching the new trailers – which seemed far less dark and scary to me – and as I was about to embark on a long road trip with my mum from Los Angeles to Texas we bought an audio version of the book, Gangster Squad, by former Los Angeles Time reporter Paul Lieberman – a work of non fiction upon which the film was based. As we drove out of town, we listened to the real history of the city, even at one point actually turning onto Alvarado Street right as it was mentioned by the narrator.
 
So ofcourse, now we had to see the film.
 
Eventually, we went to the first matinee screening on the day it was released and were not disappointed. The movie is most definitely fictionalized as it represents several decades of history condensed into a few hours and I would say it takes even more artistic license than is necessary to that task, giving the film a stylized aesthetic. So, it doesn’t so much create the look and feel of the post war period – as it creates the look and feel of a ‘colourized version’ of the films of that period. I did though find myself wishing on more than one occasion, that the film were actually in black and white.
 
True, it is no LA Confidential, but Gangster Squad is a great ‘popcorn movie’. The end of the film indulges greatly in what most are calling ‘pro-LAPD’ propaganda, but I can forgive this in light of the fact that the filmmakers re-edited the movie after the shooting that took place at a showing of a different Warner Brothers film, and one which most likely screened the original trailer. I can only assume this was one of the many changes that took place during the re editing process. Do be aware though that Gangster Squad is still a very violent, Hollywood gangster film, perhaps not as realistically so as Confidential, but violent nonetheless.
 
The film emphasizes the fact that the famous Gangster Squad stopped ‘The Mob’ from gaining a foothold in Los Angeles. Unfortunately though it fails miserably to point out, that it was also the beginning of police corruption which became so institutionalized in later decades and was largely responsible for several riots and the rise of a dangerous ‘Cop Killer’ culture that still persists in LA today. So ‘The Mob’, meaning the Italian and Jewish gangs of New York and Chicago were rebuffed, but the wider problem of organized crime was unfortunately not.
 
So as a lesson in accurate American history, I would not recommend the film (though the same can not be said for Lieberman’s book) but as a good old fashioned Hollywood gangster flick, I recommend it.
 
Tip: If you are unfamiliar with the Los Angeles area and want to get one of the inside jokes, look up the location of Warner Brothers US headquarters before seeing the film.
 
As far as the technical elements are concerned, the production design was over the top fabulous, you can’t ask for better. It is really a shame that the film ended up in the January dumping ground because the awards are all at the end of the year. I certainly hope The Academy and other organisations remember this film by the end of 2013 for this aspect especially. A lot of people put in a lot of hard work to make this happen.
 
Note: LAX Union Station (Los Angeles’ central train station) looks virtually unchanged today. I use it frequently and can say that it likely did not present too many challenges for production design.
 
I was, though, less impressed with the photography as the DoP committed one of my pet peeves which was to blow out the highlights. If you are going to shoot digital (Arri Alexa in this case) you have to err on the side of under exposure. If you want a lit up, over exposed look, you have to shoot on film. I am quite unyielding in this opinion.
 
I also found it hard to get used to the excessive colouring, though I could see that the filmmakers were trying to, and in many ways did achieve a late 1940’s colourised look to the film, mixed with the loss of detail in the highlights, it did not quite look right to me. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I wanted it to be black and white.
 
I think the performances could have been pushed a little farther as well. I was particularly disappointed in Ryan Gosling’s performance – which didn’t seem very manly to me. Some have criticized Sean Penn for being a caricature and I do think the veteran actor could have improved some – but I also think he is being blamed for a sense of falsity that is more attributable to bad prosthetics and make up than to his actual performance. I would have liked to see Penn without the prosthetics. I think he may have ended up ‘looking’ more like Mickey Cohen through acting alone.
 
That being said, Josh Brolin was fantastic as was Emma Stone. Also look for an excellent performance by Mireille Enos as Connie O’Mara. Were it not for the January release date, I might hope that she would get awards attention for her performance in this important supporting role.
 

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Our resident film critic Anne LaBarbera was born in Austin, Texas. A joint US / Italian national her varied film career spans writing, directing, producing, wardrobe and (even) running for the BBC – she’s nearly done it all! Anne splits her time between Los Angeles and Austin, Texas and when not in Hollywood, likes to travel and feature her classic VW Scirocco in the movies, mostly her own. Catch more of Anne’s adventures here on Extrafriends or her own website www.annefilm.com

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About Anne La Barbera

Our resident film critic Anne LaBarbera was born in Austin, Texas. A joint US / Italian national her varied film career spans writing, directing, producing, wardrobe and (even) running for the BBC – she’s nearly done it all! When not at home in Hollywood, Anne likes to travel and feature her classic VW Scirocco in the movies, mostly her own. Catch more of Anne’s adventures on www.annefilm.com.

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