Brexit Blues

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You Can’t Judge a Film by Its Title

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You might expect a film about organized crime and bearing the title A Most Violent Year to be filled with bloody, sadistic mayhem, à la Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. You would be wrong, however, as I was. Yes, there is violence in this story about a heating oil supplier who wants to run his business without paying for protection, without acknowledging mob-determined territorial monopolies, and without engaging in corruption. But it’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

The film takes its title from the fact that it’s set in New York in 1981, statistically one of the most crime-ridden years in the city’s history. Against this background Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is about to complete the biggest deal of his life, purchasing a large oil terminal that will allow him to double or even triple his business. He has already put down a million dollars — in cash — and now has 30 days in which to pay off the remainder, or he will lose his entire deposit. (This isn’t your typical real estate deal brokered by Century 21.) His banker has agreed to lend him the additional million and a half. Abel couldn’t be happier as he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) move into their brand new mansion, coincidentally closing that same day.

It’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

Well, maybe he could be just a little happier. Complicating the consummation of this deal for the oil terminal are two other deals: the Feds are suddenly investigating him for evidence of tax fraud or other crimes, and someone — he doesn’t know who — is threatening his employees by dragging drivers from his delivery trucks and roughing up his sales staff as they meet with potential clients. One of the things I like about this movie is that the employees aren’t the gangland thugs typical of this genre, and they aren’t shooting up everyone in sight. In fact, they aren’t shooting anyone if they can help it. They are ordinary young men and women — mostly white, mostly nervous — who are just trying to make a living at a relatively unskilled job, selling something as mundane as home heating fuel.

Surprisingly, that makes the film more suspenseful, not less. I actually began worrying about the men who deliver heating oil to my home in New York. Might they be involved in territorial warfare? Might they bring this violence into my backyard? The story is true in a way that is rare for Hollywood. They never use the word “Mafia,” and Abel’s name is Morales, not Morelli. The name suggests that he is able to run a business with morality and integrity, even in a city that is crumbling in moral decay.

This is the kind of film that suffers at the box office from not delivering what it seems to promise. Audiences who are drawn to thoughtful, character-driven, metaphorically rich films are likely to avoid it because of its title, while those who expect to see a typically violent and graphic gangster flick will complain that it was too bland and slow (as did many of the viewers in the theater where I saw it). And that’s a shame, because a film like this one, about an honest businessman trying to remain clean in a dirty industry, deserves a larger audience.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Most Violent Year," directed by J. C. Chardor. A24 (a production company that tops the funding list of over two dozen independent production and distribution companies), 2014, 125 minutes.



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Not Just Another Gangster Film

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Did we really need another big, bloody, blockbuster of a gangster film?

Well, we may not need another one, but I'm mighty happy to have this one. Gangster Squad is smart, classy, brilliantly acted, creatively conceived, and surprisingly fun. It tells an important story, too, about how gang bosses build their territory and why it is so difficult to get rid of them.

The film is set in postwar Los Angeles and tells the mostly true story of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) — a high-profile gangster from New York and Chicago who wants to make L.A. his exclusive territory — and the cops who go after him. Cohen trades in drugs, women, and gambling. A former prizefighter, he is brutal in his punishment of anyone who fails him or crosses him. He is determined to become the kingpin of the West Coast, and Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), an honest cop and World War II vet, is just as determined to stop him. But to do that, he will have to fight half the cops in L.A., because most of them are on Cohen's payroll.

I believe in the power of the free market, but I ask you: how can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up. The bad guys will always have more money than the good guys to buy the cops' loyalty. Cohen says cynically, "A cop that's not for sale is like a dog with rabies. There's no medicine for it. You just gotta put 'im down."

Honest cops have to be motivated by more than money. They have to care passionately about the people and the town. O'Mara and his gang have that kind of passion. Fresh out of the war, they have the military mindset of men who believe in their cause and are willing to die for it. They risked their lives to defend America's honor and her way of life, and then they came home to a city facing corruption. One of them muses, "A bright future — that's what we fought for, right? I'm not gonna let Mickey Cohen take that away from us."

Can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up.

That kind of honor-driven determination makes the members of the gangster squad very dangerous to criminals. And to themselves. They take risks no one would accept for a paycheck alone, and they do things no cop oughta do without a warrant, a trial, and a sentence. After one particularly deadly shootout, O'Mara says, "War taught us how to fight, and now that's all we know how to do. We don't know how to live, only how to fight. We might as well be Mickey Cohen."

In many respects Gangster Squad is a classic mission movie in the style of The Magnificent Seven or The Dirty Dozen. As O'Mara assembles his team of honest cops turned rogue assassins, we get to know their personalities and strengths. Ryan Gosling is the Steve McQueen of the group. Even the way he smokes is cool, sexy, and smart. So is the stylized way he shoots. He has the sly smile and enigmatic eyes that tell us his character is as unpredictable as nitroglycerin. Giovanni Ribisi is the family man whose expertise is communications technology — sort of the "Radar" of this group. Robert Patrick is the anachronistic cowboy, a sharpshooter and soothsayer rolled into one.

Director Ruben Fleischer has a great eye for style. He uses his sets, colors, costumes, gorgeous cars, and cinematic magic to suggest a graphic novel brought to life. O'Mara has the strong jaw, steely squint, and classy fedora of a Dick Tracy. Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) with her deeply colored lips, sultry movements, and sideswept hairstyle suggests Veronica Lake — or perhaps Jessica Rabbit. Side characters such as Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) and Lt. Quincannon (Jack McGee), with their distinctive noses and gruff bravado, look like the supporting characters in a Spiderman comic book. The script, written by first-time screenwriters Will Beall and Paul Lieberman, almost falls into parody at times, but the actors carry it off without cracking a smile. The dialogue is witty and sophisticated, while the story is deadly serious. It's a winning combination.

If President Obama wanted a poster movie for his war on automatic weapons, this one is it. The film was supposed to be released in September, but after the shooting in an Aurora movie theater in mid-July, they had to pull it from distribution and rewrite the climactic scene, which originally took place in a crowded movie theater. The scene now happens on a crowded street in Chinatown, but its veiled allusions to Graumann's Chinese Theater and the film Chinatown, which was considered very violent when it was made in 1974, serve as reminders of what the scene originally entailed. I'm not so sure the change of venue makes that much difference — civilians are still being gunned down in droves in a public square — but the move seems to have made director Fleischer and the rest of the cast feel better about the film. I wonder if a similar sense of social consciousness will prompt Quentin Tarantino to remove the climactic theater massacre from Inglorious Basterds, or cause TNT and others to edit out the ending when they show it on TV. Somehow I don't think that will happen . . .

Gangster Squad is a bit bloody for some tastes, but it's easy to know when to look away if you're the squeamish type. Meanwhile, the fine acting, engrossing story, witty script, and artistic cinematography make it worth the effort.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gangster Squad," directed by Ruben Fleischer. Warner Brothers, 2013, 114 minutes.



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