Posts tagged ‘Gangsters’

Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a fairly derivative take on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables: in this 2013 film 1940s Los Angeles takes the place of 1920s Chicago, and there are similarities between the two stories, both based on real life events, both involving honest cops tasked with taking down a well-connected and ruthless mobster with the help of a team of spirited misfits. I suppose one can hardly blame the younger, more inexperienced director for sticking rigidly to the same formula successfully employed by de Palma in the 1980s, but sadly, in almost every area in which the two films can be compared, Fleischer’s effort comes off as second best. To begin with, Sean Penn’s one-note crime boss Mickey Cohen is as boring as villains come, and the actor struggles to make anything like the same kind of impact that Robert de Niro delivered with his over-the-top and hugely enjoyable turn as Al Capone, though Cohen does at least exhibit some of Capone’s flair for inventing elaborate or unusual deaths for his underworld enemies. Josh Brolin, meanwhile, is this film’s noble Eliot Ness-alike, John O’Mara; a family man looking to do good, he narrows his eyes and stares off into the middle distance a lot while considering all the moral implications thrown up by his work, which involves disrupting Cohen’s empire by any means necessary. The team of incorruptibles working under O’Mara (played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Peña) have been given precisely one skill or personality trait each, and they wander round dutifully in the shadow of their leader, each waiting to step out into the limelight for his own brief heroic moment. Gosling’s the only supporting actor who gets an ample amount of screen time, but he’s unwilling to break out of his quiet, cool enigma thing here, and as a result you know as much about his character at the end of the film as you do when he first appears.

Will Beall’s script, meanwhile, is full of clichéd, self-important cop phrases about ‘the honour of men who carry the badge’ and the like, and it contains a dispiriting emphasis on male barking and growling; at one point Brolin sets out the stakes by gruffly telling his men ‘you lose everything and you win the war – you’re a hero. You lose everything and you lose the war – you’re just a fool’ and, rather weirdly, no-one either laughs in his face or calls him a preposterous, overblown c*** afterwards. In fact there is a huge amount of macho, guttural man rumbling in this film. Both Brolin and Penn sound as if they’ve been getting through three packs of Marlboros before their daily morning muesli and yoga sessions, though they are like high-pitched choirboys next to the mighty Nick Nolte, who appears here in a supporting role as a man who has apparently lived a thousand lives with just the one set of vocal chords. Still, despite a lack of originality and all of the assembled masculine posturing Gangster Squad isn’t dreadful, and there’s some impressive noirish production design and costume design to enjoy. Unfortunately there are several dull patches, and Fleischer seemingly can’t break free of them; the action here – which ought to lift the film and make it more entertaining – lacks the flair and imagination that made the set pieces in De Palma’s earlier film so watchable and so enjoyable. Poor old Emma Stone tries to make the best of one of the film’s two token and completely under-written female roles (she’s Cohen’s squeeze, later shacking up with Gosling’s charmer Jerry Wooters), but the director seems to give up on her after a while to concentrate on the throaty man growls. These continue all the way through the film and into its risible epilogue, in which there’s even more self-important talk of honour and cops and cop honour and honourable cops and the honour of cops and how cops are honourable. Meh.

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer.
Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Sullivan Stapleton.
Cinematography: Dion Beebe.
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert.
Steve Jablonsky.
Running Time:
113 minutes.


Ben Wheatley’s 2009 debut offers a welcome spin on the tired old British gangster film. Its Union Jack-bedecked poster (and the marketing more generally) suggests you’re in for one of those straight-to-Tesco crime dramas – the kind that are so bad even Danny Dyer and Vinnie Jones won’t touch them with a fackin’ barge pole, guv – and perhaps that’s what distributor Magnolia thought they were buying, though that may be doing them a disservice. In fact Down Terrace isn’t one of those films at all: it takes a typically dysfunctional criminal family out of the warehouses and docklands and strip clubs of London and puts them instead in an altogether more ‘normal’ milieu of a terrace house in Brighton, where a violent fortnight of retribution, murder and spiritual discourse plays out. It’s also intermittently very funny, with several notable sit-com faces filling out the cast, such as Julia Deakin (Spaced, I’m Alan Partridge), David Schaal (The Office, The Inbetweeners), Michael Smiley (Spaced) and Tony Way (Swiss Toni, Black Books).

I’m catching up with Wheatley’s films before his latest, the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, hits UK cinemas next week; I was aware that his first few movies incorporated an occasionally-uncomfortable mix of dour, straight-faced comedy and sudden, bluntly-delivered acts of violence, and that’s Down Terrace in a nutshell, with a dose of kitchen sink Shakespearian drama or council estate Mario Puzo thrown in for good measure. When the attacks come – with knife, hammer and anything else at hand – they’re gruseome but surprisingly underplayed: one blow is usually enough, though a knife fight in an underpass is longer, drawn out for added tension. Some of the acting, as you’d maybe expect for a low-budget debut, is weak, and it’s a little too busy – seeing a crime family disintergrate so quickly is a stretch to accept, particularly when they appear to actually get along and love one another – but as first features go there are moments of effective black comedy here that bode well for me as I prepare for his other films. It’s not a re-invention of the British gangster film, but it’s good to see a fresh spin on this most tired of genres, and I quite liked it’s lo-fi, close-up, terrace house claustrophobia. Inasmuch as it’s the film that launched Wheatley’s career, I should also point out the contribution of Robin Hill, who co-wrote, co-starred and co-edited.

[I have also watched three other films by Ben Wheatley recently: Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England.]

Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley.
Starring: Richard Hill, Robin Hill, Julia Deakin, David Schaal, Kerry Peacock, Michael Smiley, Tony Way.
Cinematography: Laurie Rose.
Editing: Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley.
Jim Williams.
Running Time:
89 minutes.


HyenaIs there a sub-genre with a reputation worse than the British gangster film at the moment? Granted the occasional gem appears once in a while but for longer than I care to remember an unhealthy percentage of releases have been of middling quality, go straight to the supermarket shelves and are (or look as though they are) riddled with clichés, many of which I’m sure you’ll be familiar with: shotgun-toting cockney geezers, scenes in strip clubs, Eastern European criminals, corrupt police officers (aka ‘bent coppers’) and young, up-and-coming protagonists are usually the order of the day, and if you’re really unlucky you might catch a film containing all of the above and an appearance by Vinnie Jones. Little wonder they’re mercilessly lampooned by sketches such as this one.

Gerard Johnson’s Hyena contains several of these tropes but is much better than such a statement suggests, and has more in common with downbeat dramas like Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Paul Andrew Williams’ London To Brighton than, say, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. The story revolves around a corrupt drug squad officer by the name of Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando), who hoovers up the spoils of his raids with three racist, coke-fiend colleagues (played by Neil Maskell, Gordon Brown and Tony Pitts); we are introduced to them as they shake down a west London nightclub and dish out a few unnecessarily brutal beatings to the patrons, owners and staff, which seems to be a ‘normal’ night’s work for these officers, each of whom seems to have rejected the idea of a moral code being at all relevant to the job at hand. Logan’s superiors turn a blind eye to his criminal activities because they’re more concerned with meeting monthly arrest quotas, and he is instrumental in helping them achieve their targets. However he does have enemies within the Met: Richard Dormer’s smug CID Detective Inspector is out to get him, for one, as is Stephen Graham’s grudge-bearing former partner, who re-enters Logan’s life as a superior officer.

At the beginning of the story, which was also written by Johnson, Logan is about to go into business with a Turkish drug dealer when a pair of rival Albanian thugs suddenly appear and violently put an end to such plans. Much of the plot involves Logan’s subsequent dealings with this pair of drug- and human-trafficking psychopaths, played by Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi, and their relationship eventually turns sour after the policeman uncharacteristically tries to help Alina (Elisa Lasowski), a woman who has been smuggled into the UK for prostitution.

So yeah, Hyena‘s subject matter is grim, and several disturbing scenes lie within its 110 minutes, but the comparisons that have been made between Johnson’s film and the work of Nicolas Winding Refn seem wide of the mark to me. One or two shots here are gratuitous, but we’re talking about fleeting moments, and although the depiction of violence towards women (and prostitutes in particular) is understandably unpleasant to watch it should be noted that Johnson sought the input of Eaves, a charity that offers support for vulnerable women, while making the film. Similarly while this has been somewhat predictably referred to as ‘England’s Bad Lieutenant‘ because of its amoral central character, it’s actually far closer in tone to those films mentioned a couple of paragraphs above than any American release I can think of.

There’s a suitably moody, synth-heavy soundtrack by Matt Johnson (credited to his old band, The The) while cinematographer Benjamin Kračun shoots London as a gloomy city, pallid during the day and reliant on flashes of neon for colour at night, while in terms of locations the director generally opts for nondescript roads, Brutalist tower blocks, betting shops and rancid, smoke-stained pubs (each of which seems to have held out thus far against the jointly-spreading viruses of beards and craft beer); even the more lively and colourful environs of Soho’s Old Compton Street carry an unfamiliar menace here. In truth I haven’t seen London look this London on the big screen for quite some time, even though I’m hardly au fait with the seedy underbelly depicted or the activities that take place.

The story does drift a little at times and an attempt at an ambiguous ending sadly misses the mark, but Hyena still sits ahead of the pack thanks to its stylish look and its effective performances. Johnson even finds time for a dash of humour: at one point when the Albanians are waiting for Logan to return to his flat they watch an old Norman Wisdom film on TV; bizarrely Wisdom became incredibly popular in Albania as he was one of the few Western actors whose films were played in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

Directed by: Gerard Johnson.
Written by: Gerard Johnson.
Starring: Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, Orli Shuka, Gjevat Kelmendi, Elisa Lasowski, MyAnna Buring, Richard Dormer, Gordon Brown, Tony Pitts.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kračun.
Editing: Ian Davies.
Music: The The.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 112 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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