Review: 'Gangster Squad' is Fun, Flashy, Forgettable Entertainment
by Jeremy Kirk
January 10, 2013
Gangster Squad, the latest from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, is right at home behind the Warner Brothers logo. At times, the Los Angeles mobster movie feels like a cartoon, riding the line of ridiculousness between The Untouchables and Dick Tracy with an almost blatant eye for cliche and plot-structuring imitation. Don't expect much of real life to slip into its story. That's like The Untouchables, as well, the film Gangster Squad most emulates. It's surface-level fun that gets bogged down with absurdity, flashy to the point of ostentation, and that's not even including Sean Penn's make-up.
Penn plays real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, a force in the bustling Los Angeles of 1949. Cohen's brashness and knack for tasteless violence has made him a threat to even the side of the Los Angeles Police Department that feels organized crime is a constant that needs to be controlled rather than stamped out, but with a majority of the law on Cohen's payroll, it's up to a team of honest cops, lead by Josh Brolin's Sgt. John O'Mara, a decorated World War II vet, to take the law into their own hands. With the chief of police at his back and carte blanche given when it comes to their own lawful actions, O'Mara forms a squad with five other men (Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, and Giovanni Ribisi) to help him stamp out Cohen's LA operation, whether their means fall under the laws or go over it.
Written by first-time feature writer Will Beall, Gangster Squad's screenplay leaves much to be desired. The momentum and energy of the story is there, but Beall seems satisfied picking and choosing the best films like The Untouchables and LA Confidential have to offer, supplanting those films' characters with those of Paul Lieberman's book, which Gangster Squad is based on.
The inevitable "I want them all dead" tirade Penn's Cohen goes on is nothing as powerful or as memorable as Robert De Niro as Al Capone vowing vengeance against Kevin Costner's Elliott Ness, and the moments of violence against the Gangster Squad would be riveting if they weren't so familiar. By the time the film turns towards a shoot-out around an elaborate staircase and hotel lobby, you can't help but think it would be just as easy and a whole lot more fun to watch Brian De Palma's film and be done with it. Gosling's tough-as-nails Sgt. Wooters who falls in love with Emma Stone's call girl Grace Faraday adds tension, since Faraday is Cohen's mall of choice. However, the subplot worked better with Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger in the respective, LA Confidential roles.
But where Beall rests on familiarity, director Fleischer rises to the occasion with a glitzy atmosphere and deep colors that bring Los Angeles of the late 1940s to effective life. The clothes, cars, even wet-down streets do their parts in establishing environment, and his audacious handling of Cohen's more violent outbursts gives his film the edge it needs. The violence in Gangster Squad is of the in-your-face variety, and Fleischer's history with outlandish comedies like Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less made him an odd but welcome choice to handle this material. He pulls it off well, making Beall's humdrum and almost lazy screenplay something worth watching even if there isn't much to grasp onto for reflection's sake.
That comes from the cast, which Fleischer was able to fill with some of today's best actors and actresses. Brolin is solid as the head of the squad, Gosling rolls with his character's tough-and-tender persona, and the team's secondary players all come off nicely, making each character's thin descriptors evident in every scene they share. Stone has become one of Hollywood's best actresses in recent years, and though she isn't given much to play with as Grace Faraday, she handles her slim-but-sultry part with the best her talents can pull off. Nick Nolte as the chief of police sits behind his desk like nobody's business, barking orders like only Nolte can.
Penn is kind of in a class all his own in Gangster Squad, and it still remains to be seen if that's a good or bad aspect to the film. As a sadistic gangster who only wants more and more control over his city, he chooses to take the 90's approach to villainy. No scene goes unchewed, no line of dialogue goes without a healthy dose of spittle, and hidden behind a large application of makeup, the actor's work here can be described as anything but effortless. You see him trying, and while this goes right along with Cohen's particularly garish tastes and mannerisms, it often becomes distracting.
At least you remember it, though, something that can't be said all that much for the rest of Gangster Squad. Scenes of action come and go with all the entertainment they are attempting, but Fleischer's film suffers too much from giving too little too often when it comes to story. Elaborate production design and an excellent cast can only do so much in the face of an uninteresting and blase storyline, but to everyone's credit, they do their very best. Gangster Squad gives the kind of enjoyment perfect for a Saturday afternoon, with nothing heavy offered and nothing memorable given. Like a block of Looney Tunes shorts, it entertains with style and swank, then leaves you to remember the truly great films of its ilk.
Jeremy's Rating: 6 out of 10