Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Written by Will Beall
At some point, an excess of style only serves to emphasize the hollowness of a story. A director like Martin Scorsese knows how to weave a sprawling tale of vice and amorality while juicing up the proceedings with verve and panache. On the one hand, we get stunning, sometimes bleak visions of humanity like Goodfellas. But sadly, every director isn’t Martin Scorsese. Thus, we get pale imitators inspired by films such as Goodfellas. Case in point: the new crime drama Gangster Squad, which wants to pump up the ultraviolence and pay a juvenile form of respect to film noir classics. However, gory as it is, Gangster Squad just feels empty and bland.
Beginning in 1949 and inspired by a true story, Gangster Squad focuses on fearsome and psychotic gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, looking like an outcast from a Dick Tracy comic strip), who’s hell-bent on taking over Los Angeles as his own enormous criminal empire. As such, he’s bought out most of the police force in L.A. County, except for a choice few, such as the decent and true Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin). O’Mara is appointed head of a secret task force by police chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), told simply to go to war with Cohen’s syndicate in hopes that by attacking the operation below him, Cohen will be brought down. O’Mara recruits a number of cops including his friend Jerry (Ryan Gosling), who quickly falls for Cohen’s latest squeeze (Emma Stone) despite the inherent danger. Subsequent to this, the bodies and bullets hit the floor.
Normally, calling attention to the outlandish violence in a gangster movie might be pointless. Gangster Squad attempts to hearken back to an era of square-jawed lawmen, the collection of their grotesque nemeses, and femme fatales. Gunplay is par for the course. And yet, because Warner Bros. went to the trouble of reshooting an action sequence from this movie in light of the Aurora, Colorado shooting tragedy from last summer, it’s worth noting that Gangster Squad’s violence vacillates between being painful to watch for hitting slightly too close to home, and being painful to watch because it feels too much like a video game. Warner Bros. sent a message by reshooting Gangster Squad, that it wanted to do a mitzvah out of respect for the anguish people felt in light of a movie-theater massacre. Still, considering how this film not only depicts but frequently glorifies violence of all kinds—director Ruben Fleischer’s usage of slow-motion in the action scenes is unnecessary as it drools over each bullet shell hitting the pavement—cutting one bloody sequence from the film and replacing it with another is like putting lipstick on a pig.
Gangster Squad, in general, feels like it’s in search of adult supervision. The glee with which the violence is presented, coupled with the film’s eye-rolling so-called homages to older, greater films, smacks of a misguided and juvenile sensibility. Early in the film, the camera tracks Jerry as he walks through Slapsy Maxie’s, an L.A. nightclub, a long, single-take shot that glides, turns, and weaves around the Art Deco atmosphere. Later, a character is shot and—significantly—falls, face-down, into a pool; we see this person lying in the pool from below. At this point in history, if you’re a filmmaker mulling over the idea of quoting Goodfellas and Sunset Boulevard in your gangster movie, you should rethink that strategy immediately.
Because Fleischer, who once helmed the snarky, bloody, and very funny comedy Zombieland, has a moderate level of style, and because of the impressive cast, Gangster Squad isn’t ever truly unbearable. Brolin and Gosling are well cast as John and Jerry, even if the script lets their personas do the heavy lifting. O’Mara isn’t ever presented as more than a taciturn, rigid, straight-arrow cop, and who better to play the role than Brolin? Penn is as one-note as anyone else in the film, as jittery and antsy as Gosling in his performance, despite playing more of an unchained mad dog. Stone, like the rest of the supporting cast, is utterly wasted even though she looks the part of the gorgeous, alluring mobster arm candy. Seeing her, Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, and Robert Patrick in a film together is delightful, at least to know they all got steady paychecks. But stranding them in one-note roles is aggravating, a tease of something promising that never comes.
Gangster Squad wants very badly to be thought of in the same breath as L.A. Confidential and Chinatown, noir throwbacks from a later period. Its ambitions are noble and for the most part, it looks accurate as long as guns aren’t blazing. When the bullets fly, Gangster Squad strikes an odd air of irony, as if the filmmakers want to emphasize a winking distance between themselves and the mayhem being depicted onscreen. Because the filmapparently wants to have its cake, eat it, and then mock it for having existed, Gangster Squad never strikes an even tone. A sincere depiction of police corruption and the few good men who fought against it and the mob is a fascinating story to tell. And though they’re not infrequent, a glib but entertaining piece of ultraviolence could be a compelling sit. Gangster Squad, though, wants to be all things to all people, winding up empty, hollow, and vapid.
– Josh Spiegel