Appealing to base instincts: Les Misérables and Gangster Squad

12 January 2013

While 'Les Misérables' pares Victor Hugo's apparently forgotten novel down to a hearts-on-sleeves cine-opera, 'Gangster Squad' obliterates all shades of grey with a routine vigilante procedural.
A lengthy succession of extended charities and zero-to-hero (and vice versa) shifts in fortune, Les Misérables is Oscar-groomed Tom Hooper's tailor-made follow-up to The King's Speech (2010), adapted from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's crowd-pleasing stage musical - itself taken from Victor Hugo's apparently forgotten 1862 novel. Opening with a space-defying camera-swoop from the heavens down to a close-up of hero Jean Valjean's (Hugh Jackman) dogged face, Hooper tries his damnedest to inject cinematic fervour into material designed to unfold in one physical setting, and comes up with a hands-on, in-the-moment agitato evinced by roaming, intimate handheld, and a visual distortion begotten by the use of wide-angle lenses and inexplicably canting horizons. To paraphrase comments this week from football manager Harry Redknapp, you'd have to be a real dope to mess the job of directing this commercially secured delirium up; Hooper deserves credit for apparently trying his best.

Two paragraphs in summary: in 1815, 26 years after the French Revolution, a convict named Jean Valjean fails to secure work with a parole note; prison guard-cum-copper Javert (Russell Crowe) refers to Valjean as "a dangerous man" (he'd stolen a loaf of bread to feed his sister's impoverished son), and when a chance encounter in 1823 (that's "eight years later", helpful on-screen text tells us) brings Javert face-to-face with Valjean, now an honest businessman under a different guise, an obsession with bringing the ex-con to justice is sparked in him. Elsewhere, one of Valjean's employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) sinks to rock bottom, with unemployment, scandal and prostitution enforced upon her, and she dies after Valjean promises to seek out her now-orphaned child and take care of her.

Said child is Cosette (Isabelle Allen and, later, Amanda Seyfried), whom Valjean rescues from crooked innkeepers the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). In Paris, 1832 (that's "nine years later", helpful on-screen text tells us), with anti-monarchist rebellion brewing on the streets, Cosette falls in love with student revolutionist Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and he with her, and over the course of one night (yes), Valjean becomes aware of his adopted daughter's sudden romance and heads to the barricades to find Marius, etc., etc.

Everything's concentrated, here: the camera's often so close to the performers you can see its shadow on their faces, while the emotional and dramatic shifts of the film's second half are meant to take place over the course of one night - a marriage-worthy love-at-first-sight included. Emotional rawness abounds, then: numbers, sung live on set, are filmed in longer-than-average takes, with Jackman marching back and forth during his introductory self-searching and Hathaway giving an extraordinary rendition of Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream", whose lyrics (by Herbert Kretzmer) are the stuff of pure misery. Determined to transcend the material's stagebound elements, Hooper often shoots conversations from the point-of-view of both characters, so that his actors look straight into camera with a kind of direct address to the audience.

The biggest problem with the visual intimacy is that the whole film feels like a series of reaction shots; actors get to interact with one another so rarely - something which would have been unthinkable had Hooper opted to retain dance routines, whose choreography would have demanded wider and better devised framing. This is a shame given the talent on display: as the impossibly righteous hero, Jackman is excellent, and Hathaway - as she did in The Dark Knight Rises last year - leaves you longing for her return to the screen after a too-premature emotional peak. As second-half love interest, Redmayne yanks his vocal chords and tears in beautiful tandem, while Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter provide welcome levity with intermittent appearances as fiendish crooks (Hooper's Paris appears more like a socially incestous hamlet than the complex boiling pot of revolution that it was). Crowe, however, who on his worst day still has more screen presence than most, plays the film's most compelling character by far: in Javert, one finds a dramatic arc worthy of a self-sustained film of its own, in which the character might be elevated to title status and spawn a franchise of tragedy more fitting to our times.

Dwarfing Les Misérables in its appeal to an audience's base instincts, however, is Gangster Squad, a period cops'n'crooks piece whose makers were so concerned for audience respect that they re-worked a large chunk of the film after the cinema shootings in Aurora, Colorado last July superficially echoed an in-film set-piece. Retained for good measure, though, are the gut-pumping, ear-puncturing thwacks and whacks that come in the opening ten minutes when Josh Brolin's Sgt. John O'Mara pummels a hapless bunch of suited pimps with the kind of ferocity worthy of a Nicolas Winding Refn film. All of this before O'Mara belatedly welcomes Ambyr Childers' wannabe star-cum-would-be rape victim to the city, and all of this after Sean Penn's Mickey Cohen oversees a man torn apart by two cars driving in opposite directions.

Los Angeles, 1949 (they've done their research: "Hollywoodland" adorns Mount Lee!). Cohen is a Jewish ex-boxer, a celebrity gangster whose "boxing days are over" and whose ascension of the crime ladder is more or less secured, much to the inexplicably personal chagrin of O'Mara - whose wife Connie (Mireille Enos) tells him and us the audience what kind of a man he is. When O'Mara is hired by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to form a crew of cop-force vigilantes to "shatter" Cohen's operation, his previously-disapproving wife helps him hand-select a band of stereotypes played by (in order of appearance) Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick and Giovanni Ribisi; an over-keen Michael Peña completes this stategically and anachronistically multi-racial outfit, and Ryan Gosling's Sgt. Jerry Wooters also joins after an innocent kid is killed outside the Cohen-controlled club Slapsy Maxie's.

Wooters is himself a regular at Slapsy Maxie's - is, in fact, greeted as "Detective" by its doormen - and so when he beds Cohen's moll Grace (Emma Stone), it's a bit of a narrative stretch to say the least that the gangster squad's chief target doesn't cotton on sooner. Narrative plausibility, however, is the least of the film's worries. Constructed so as to remove all shades of grey, it celebrates a vigilantism, off-setting its titular crew's dirty half-dozen methods with a cosy summer barbecue and ongoing one-liners. Messily assembled - evinced by an overcomplicated jailbreak set-piece - it's a "based on a true story" yarn that compares disastrously to LA Confidential (1997) precisely because it takes its characterisation for granted.

Punctuating each scene with an arrow-straight kick-ass appeal, writer Will Beall (adapting from Paul Lieberman's book) and director Ruben Fleischer deal in broad disposables, under-writing the two token female parts, and presenting the various male roles as simple to the extent where those playing them merely had to show up. The exception is Penn, whose Cohen looks like he's been unhappily bludgeoned by a ton of makeup. Brimming with nastiness throughout, Cohen is a cartoon crook, and like his character, Penn is outdone by Coen brothers regular Jon Polito, who proves once again that with only one scene of dialogue, he'll run away with an entire film and leave everyone else looking lost.