Rat-a-tat-tat! Gangster Squad has hit town! This is great news for cinemagoers seeking sparks in the middle of grey, grim January. Slick mobster style! Machine gun-blastin’ action! Hollywood pizazz! Retro chic and period detail!
Gangster Squad also appeals with a stellar cast and the presence of Ruben Fleischer – an assured hand when it comes to directing high-octane entertainment – behind the camera. Nevertheless, the film has let me down slightly right from the start in that its title is misleading. “Gangster Squad” is not a ‘squad of gangsters’ but rather, less alluringly, ‘a police squad to tackle gangsters’.
The squad – Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Gio Ribisi and Robert Patrick – are indubitably a very cool bunch. Furthermore, watching the LAPD come down hard on criminals often makes for an enjoyable cinematic experience (see L.A. Confidential, End Of Watch, Speed and Heat as a few diverse examples). Unfortunately, though, I may have to shun the courageous cops and side with Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and his mob, because I’ve got a thing for gangsters. Like Goodfellas’ Jimmy the Gent I go to the movies to root for the bad guys.
Gangsters have more fun and allow audiences to vicariously live out an outlaw lifestyle, which accounts for the genre’s enduring popularity and cult status. Nobody wants to be Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness of The Untouchables, but every hip hop artist, underdog ethnic minority or wannabe entrepreneur idolises Tony Montana (the Cuban Scarface).
I’m the same, and I consider it a great shame that I was born a Clayton and not as a Corleone. It’s getting lame waiting around to be recruited by the Triads or the Black Mafia. With no action in my hood, I thus have to get gangland thrills by watching organised crime-themed movies.
Inspired by these films and fuelled by loneliness and a desire to dress up in outlandish costume, I fantasise about forming my own gang styled in the fashion of The Warriors. We’d be the slickest, smartest brother-and-sisterhood around. We’d act cool, we’d look even cooler and all my clan loyalists would show massive respect for the clandestine codes, customs and rituals I made up to form a firm group identity.
If anyone got uppity on our turf, or stood as an obstacle on the rise to monopolise the illegal action figures market, we’d humiliate them and then whack ‘em in vicious style. Every single Joe Pesci character is frothing enviously as they observe my ridiculously gruesome, highly creative and often hilarious methods of murdering enemies. In summary, my gang is the baddest gang alive. (They’re only alive in my imagination, but don’t point that out to me or I might get upset, put your head in a vice and remove your voice box with a pair of chopsticks right in front of your children.)
It’s at this point that I propose a gloriously geeky game of ‘Fantasy Gangster Squad’. It’s like fantasy football except instead of prima donnas kicking balls, we’ve got primo dons busting balls. Here’s the aim of the game and objective outline: you act as a big boss, build a dream team and compete with friends and work colleagues hoping that your wiseguys perform and rack up the points so that you outrank opponents.
This unreal simulation allows me to merge the competitive excitement and stat geekery I get from my favourite sport (NBA basketball) with my love of gangster cinema. Plus, as I said, it allows me to play God (or rather, play Godfather) and gives me the opportunity to make up for the fact that I was never any good at Championship Manager.
Now to the tricky part: choosing your roster of rough housers. Ask most people who they’d like in their idealised gang and they’ll probably select obvious all-star icons (most of them played by Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and/or Joe Pesci). The problem, however, is that you have to work within a budget when you’re assembling your line-up, and you’re not going to have a balanced outfit if you go for broke on Michael Corleone, Tony Montana and Carlito Brigante. You’ll only have money left over for a single useless schnook and, what’s more, multiple Al Pacinos shouting at each other does not make for a harmonious dressing room/gang lockup.
I’m taking a smarter, more economical approach along the lines of the method celebrated in the baseball flick Moneyball. For my fantasy gangster squad, I’m picking up underrated, undervalued crooks to ensure balanced books and an absence of egocentrism. By making a few eyebrow-raising moves and focusing on retaining the services of reliable, efficient team players rather than a high-maintenance elite I reckon that I’ll rise to the top of the world, Ma.
My personal Fantasy Gangster Squad is made up of six guys who don’t get the popular acclaim and respect they deserve. We come in well under the spending cap, and I believe that we’ll be smoking all rivals and running the streets by the end of year. Frankly, my friends, my mob rules and reigns all over yours, and if Elliot Ness tries to cut short our winning streak, we’ll beat him down as well. Here’s my starting line-up…
Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), Eastern Promises
More than just a humble driver in the Russian Mafia, Nikolai can be relied upon as the ever-stable, surprisingly compassionate star player who holds the entire organisation together. His track record of cleaning up mess is exemplary, and he’s unafraid to get his hands dirty. What’s more, his impressive tattoo collection proves his high standing as a ‘thief-in-law’ and makes him look extra hard. The scene in David Cronenberg’s crime film where naked Nikolai beats up a bunch of goons in a Turkish bathhouse is definitive proof of his imperturbable nature and ice cold ultraviolent expertise. I want this man running the show.
Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), Lawless
Dismiss the male Mama Bear of the Bondurant family as a small-time backwater bootlegger at your peril. Beneath the cardigan is a strong MVP-candidate renowned for his knuckleduster skills, his resolute character and his rumoured invincibility. He’s a hulking solid presence whose grassroots game and refreshing lack of pretence will benefit any hoodlum band. What’s more he brings excellent home-brewed moonshine to the party and that’s got to be good for everyone’s morale.
Phoenix Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), Tokyo Drifter
Inexpensive by virtue of the fact that he’s an unattached free agent, the eponymous drifter of Seijun Suzuki’s 1966 hitman flick brings Yakuza experience and exotic eastern flair to the side. Tetsu has a sublime killer touch and remains unflappable, even when everyone’s marked him for death and all the environments around him are descending into arty surrealism. As a bonus, he looks so damn cool in that baby blue suit.
Jimmy Two-Times (Anthony Powers), Goodfellas
Every criminal outfit needs an effective administrator, and stuttering Jimmy is the perfect person to handle the unglamorous background work. As well as being a source of comic relief, Two-Times can be trusted as the diligent, meticulous gang member who’ll always double-check everything and ensure that operations are well-and-truly organised. “I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers” is the hint that he may be the perfect mafia secretary.
Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki), Murder, My Sweet
Providing the muscle for my personal G-unit, I’ve gone for the guy who stands tall (6ft 5in) as arguably the best big lug ever to appear in film noir. The brilliantly-named giant of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely has a large heart, but isn’t a soft touch. Dedicated to whatever task is on his simple mind, he’s the kind of ultra-intimidating henchman you can easily manipulate and despatch to perform thuggish deeds without much concern. Really, I just want my Mob Manager mantra to be “send in the Moose!”
Baby Face (Dexter Fletcher), Bugsy Malone
He may be a naïve, inexperienced rookie, but this little guy has a lot of courage, and I predict a bright future for the chipper kid. Give him the opportunity of a big stage and a baseball bat and he’ll land killer blows. Baby Face has got a lot of growing up to do but with his contagious charm and confidence (“I’m a big movie star now!”) I’m sure he’ll make it look as easy as pie (specifically, projectile custard pie – a weapon he mastered during his time clowning around in the minor leagues.)
James Clayton is a classy clutch shooter with exceptional vision and ability to read the game but unfortunately he lacks that critical big man presence that’s vital in playoff death matches. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.
You can read James’ last column here.