In this series, I will take a look at a film releasing in theatres this week and recommend an older/classic film either as a double feature companion (if the new release looks to be worth watching) or a substitute (if it looks like the new release is of the skippable variety).
New Release: Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad
A misfit squad of cops going after gangster Mickey Cohen’s empire in 1940s Los Angeles? Yeah, sign me up for that. I’ve been interested in this since I heard about it, especially due to the presence of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in the cast, but I’m ultimately glad it got delayed from September to January. Once the trailers started coming out, it was fairly clear this wasn’t going to be a good movie in the sense of a The Departed or a Godfather, but an over-the-top fun genre flick, and that fits the post-Oscar-hopeful January moviegoing season perfectly.
I went to see it yesterday, and enjoyed it quite well for what it is – there are some plot holes that I didn’t feel like bothering either rationalizing or criticizing, because it’s a fun, rollicking ride. It manages that handily, with Sean Penn hamming it up as Cohen and the other cast hitting their admittedly single-faceted character notes with game aplomb. Its glossy look never quite approaches anything that actually feels like a lived-in Los Angeles, but it looks stylish and the fight scenes are well-choreographed – it’s a good look for the film, which never pretends to be realistic, but maxes out on the glamor of nostalgia. Don’t expect too much out of this, and you’ll likely have a fun time. Then come home and watch one of the major influences on Gangster Squad, 1987’s The Untouchables.
Double Feature: Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables
Funnily enough, I chose The Untouchables to double-feature with Gangster Squad early in the week, before I’d seen or even read reviews of Gangster Squad. I mean, it’s a fairly obvious pairing even with only superficial knowledge – they’re both about a somewhat unlikely squad of men going after a crime boss (Al Capone in this case) in the early-to-mid 20th century. Watching Gangster Squad put me even more in mind of The Untouchables with a climax centered on a set of hotel steps that reminded me of The Untouchables’ famous sequence in Union Station (itself an homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkim), but it had been long enough since I watched The Untouchables that I didn’t even realize how very many things Gangster Squad stole from DePalma’s film.
Rewatching it last night after seeing Gangster Squad reminded me pretty quickly, though. There are a TON of similarities in plotting, character setup, settings, etc. So if you’ve already seen The Untouchables and you’re a stickler for originality, you’ll likely be irritated at how much Gangster Squad cribs from the earlier film. I still think both are worth watching, but The Untouchables remains the vastly superior film. The stories are pretty similar, and Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen is actually more menacing than Robert De Niro’s Al Capone, but The Untouchables showcases the best of Brian DePalma’s showy style, with some extremely well-done and effective camera movement, and a refreshing tendency to follow people with the camera to create solid in-depth compositions rather than just cutting back and forth, as Gangster Squad tends to do.
The emotional beats hit home more strongly, too, with Sean Connery impressing both comedically and tragically (he won a deserved Best Supporting Oscar for the film), and the various losses on the squad feeling much more meaningful than the similar losses do in Gangster Squad. DePalma also knows how to take his time, as in the long waiting period for the action to start in the train station sequence – a segment which ratchets up tension beautifully; Gangster Squad takes little time to build sequences like this, though it definitely has its own moments that remain effective.
In short, Gangster Squad can’t come near the quality of The Untouchables, but it is a fun genre ride in the midst of a fairly uninteresting January release schedule. So go watch it and enjoy it for what it is, then remind yourself of what films like this CAN be with a first watch or rewatch of The Untouchables.