Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Gangster Squad

Genre: Crime/Period
Premise: A gang lord in 1949 Los Angels becomes so big that the only way the cops can handle him is to go off-book and wage a war against his empire.
About: I think Gangster Squad is based on a bunch of real articles from 1940s Los Angeles newspapers.  But it may also be a book, as the script says it's based on "Tales Of The Gangster Squad" by Paul Lieberman.  Either way, the story is adapted by author Will Beall, who burst onto the screenwriting scene with his script L.A. Rex (another LA war script - this one set in the present), which one of my other reviewers, Roger Balfour, loved, and which made the 2009 Black List.
Writer: Will Beall (based on the book by Paul Lieberman).
Details: 3/11/2011 draft.  (It should be noted that this draft is newer than the main one that's floating around out there.  So this script might be slightly different from the one you've read).

I've been hearing about this one forrrrrrever.  And the word on it?  GREAT.  But I haven't read any scripts by Will Beall yet because peripherally (hearing about him through others) his writing sounds like a bit of a loose cannon.  He makes up rules as he goes along, bolds, underlines, italicizes way too liberally, delves into the dreaded dual-line dialogue more than a fat man hangs out at Mickie D's, and generally favors style over substance.

BUT...I admit that's my take from afar.  And forming opinions on people before you meet them?  That's so high school.  So it was time to see what Beall was about on my own  And time to see if this script was as good as everyone was saying it was.

Mickey Cohen is a naughty naughty guy.  When he doesn't like someone, he ties him up to the back of two Cadillacs and has each drive in the opposite direction.  Why?  Because Mickey wants it all.  And he wants to instill fear in every single entity in LA so he can have it all.  He's got the cops.  He's got the judges.  No one fucks with Mickey Cohen.

And if you do manage to catch him in the act?  Well, he's got the best lawyers money can buy too.  Guys like Mickey NEVER go down.

Which is what the LA police realize.  They see that this man is slowly turning Los Angeles into a steaming pile of trash.  And if they wait around any longer, they'll be driving the dump trucks.   The guy who knows this more than anything is Sergeant John O'Mara, one of the only clean cops left in the city.  He and his superiors come up with an idea.  If they can't stop Cohen legally, why not attack him at his own game?  Why not put together a vigilante police unit, one that doesn't have to abide by the rules and regulations cops are bound to, to, pardon my french, fuck them up Old Testament style?

O'Mara is in.  Now it's a matter of finding his team.  He grabs: A tech expert, the first black lieutenant in the department, the "deadliest cop in LA," a young Mexican cop eager to prove himself, and a wild card dude who isn't sure which side he wants to play for.  The team goes in hard, hitting up Micky's deliveries and anything else he has his dirty paws in.

Mickey, along with everybody else, is just confused.  I mean, who the hell attacks Mickey Cohen??  The most feared man on the West Coast!!  But after he gets over his shock, he realizes these mystery dudes are a real threat, and he gets all his little horses and all his little men riled up for one specific purpose - to take them down.

Who's going to win this one?  Mickey?  Or the Gangster squad?

I know this is going to upset people, but this script was kinda designed for me to hate it.  Period crime dramas aren't really my thing, but a good story is a good story, no matter where it's set or who it centers around.  Case in point.  I've been reading Ken Follet's novel, "Pillars Of The Earth," set in the year 1100, about a mason looking for work in a world that doesn't have any for him.  If there's ever a subject matter I was designed to dislike, it would be this one.  And yet, it had me from the first page.

The novel starts with the hanging of an innocent man.  It's a heartbreaking and heart-pounding scene.  This is followed by the mason and his family losing their only lifeline, a pig they saved up for all year, stolen by an outlaw, who belts their daughter with a hammer to complete the crime.  Subsequently, the family follows him to town and comes up with a plan to attack the man to get their money back.  After another heartbreaking failure, the now homeless family is forced to live in the woods as outlaws.  The pregnant wife soon gives birth to a child and dies in the process.  The mason decides to leave the newly born baby in the woods to die, since there's no way to feed him.  Every once of these sequences just grabs you and yanks you in.

The point being, Follet uses basic character-focused storytelling to transcend subject matter, to make you connect with and care for the characters.  After someone belts a little girl with a hammer, who doesn't want to see the family get the villain back?  Take them down?  I never saw any of that with the characters in Gangster Squad.  I mean, they're much better written than yesterday's entry, "Oz The Great And Powerful."  But even the big dog, O'Mara - I only knew the basics about the guy. He was a clean cop and was in the war and...well, that's it.  He was a clean cop who was in the war.  Not exactly a five star motivation.

But the real problem here is the endless number of characters.  I stopped counting but I'm guessing there's somewhere around 40.  How am I supposed to keep track of 40 characters??  All the obvious problems popped up as a result.  I'd constantly forget who was who and have to go back and check, leading to dozens of read interruptions, a cardinal sin in writing (A reader should never feel like he's working to figure out what's going on).  After awhile I got sick of having to stop every two pages so I just kept reading, even though I wasn't 100% sure who I was reading about (writers should know this happens all the time.  At a certain point, a reader just gets sick of having to check back on stuff, and barrels forward without exactly knowing who's who - At this point, your script is usually screwed.  So always make sure every character is distinct and memorable!)

The real problem with this though is that the more characters you add, the less time you have to develop the key characters in your story.  A character is going to come off a lot more interesting if you have 40 pages to develop him as opposed to, say, 15, which is what I'm guessing the 6-7 key characters in Gangster Squad got.

This can be done (and needs to be done with Gangster movies, which are usually character heavy), but it basically amounts to figuring out ways to make characters relatable and interesting and deep in 1/4 the amount of time you usually have.  And only the most skilled writers can pull that off.

The thing is, the idea for GS is cool.  I love the notion of a team of cops putting down their badges to wage a war against a kingpin because that's the only way they can defeat him. That's a movie I want to see.  If we only would've focused MORE on that group, and not the thousands of other little subplots and characters instead.  Get to know each of those guys intimately, care about them, and then send them off against Cohen.  I mean that's how they did it in The Godfather and that worked out okay.

BUT! As we all know, this is a preference I get attacked for all the time.  It's the reason I didn't like Dark Knight Rises.  I like clean narratives where I'm not confused 30% of time about what's going on.  Some writers like to take the more ambitious "epic" route and some readers/audience members enjoy the larger canvas as they like having to work for their meal.  I dig that kind of story if the writing's clear enough to handle the larger tapestry.  But I didn't personally see that here.

On the flip side, the dialogue in GS is top-notch, and I'm guessing that's why a lot of people love it so much.  It is SO HARD to create authentic fun crackling dialogue for period crime pieces.  Believe me, I've read plenty of scripts where the writer couldn't come up with a single convincing sentence of dialogue from that era, so I know.  Unfortunately, that wasn't enough for me to join the Gangster Squad.  I think I'm going to go see what Mickey Cohen's doing.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn't for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I will say this until the day I die.  The more characters you add, the less time you'll have to develop your protagonist (and other key characters). So think long and hard before adding that new character.  Do you really need him?  Can you use one of the characters you already have instead?  We'd much rather learn more about your hero than endure two scenes of Random Dude #5.