One hundred and one years ago,
We love gangsters. We love especially the old-school models, factual or fictional, whose presence in the movies guarantees the reckless high living and outlandish acts of retribution and outre cruelty that made
With this week's release of
A so-so movie such as "Gangster Squad" provides a public service, reminding us of better movies already part of the culture. Set in post-
Casting De Niro as Capone (it was nearly Bob Hoskins) is almost too right, too perfect. But one of the enduring strengths of Mamet's screenplay is its sense of proportion. The film gives us just enough of Capone, and no more. The well-dressed sociopath's capacity for murderous bloodshed is always there, but he's not always there.
It's roughly the same strategy in "Gangster Squad"; Penn's Cohen is a supporting performance, popping in and out of the corpse-strewn story line. And it's a strong, witty performance. But the material is weak, and the film (subjected to reshoots and a tacked-on happy ending) exploits our memories of other, more interesting gangster bashes.
A generation ago, which was a generation after the TV series, "The Untouchables" satisfied a popular audience's desire for period duds and sardonic Mamet dialogue (it still holds up) plus De Palma's visual panache, never more striking than in the banquet sequence when De Niro's Capone caps a dinner speech with a few fatal swings of a baseball bat. (Talk about a PowerPoint presentation people remember!) Today "The Untouchables" seems almost quaint in its on-screen violence — more than enough, to be sure, to garner an R rating. But "Gangster Squad" is a different story, and its generically energetic style, its taste for blood sometimes makes it seem like Cohen himself directed it.
My favorite screen gangster of recent years comes from Corsica, and his movie confines the character, a bad man known as Cesar, to prison. In "Un Prophete," known in its U.S. release as
The venal man we come to know doesn't exist in movie-movie land, the way De Niro's Capone does, or Penn's Cohen does. Rather, he's human-scaled — a monster in many ways, yet a dimensional one. When Arestrup (best known to American audiences for his kindly French farmer in