Great production design, props, and locations can only get you so far in a period piece, and even with a stellar group of talent in front of the camera, Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a empty and tonally inconsistent film that may be the most dumbed-down gangster movie ever made. The film loves its R-rating, showcasing ridiculous violence every chance it gets, but it’s a shame that the only audience that would likely fall for the movie’s gags – 15-year-old boys – are too young to legally see this in theaters.
It’s the late 1940s, and transplanted gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is slowly taking over Los Angeles. World War II may be over, but the war against organized crime in L.A. is just getting started, and the city’s crusty police chief (Nick Nolte) essentially gives bruiser cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) carte blanche to get Cohen and his drug-running thugs out of town. Despite initial protestations from his wife, O’Mara rounds up a motley crew of cops who speak his language, including the slick-talking charmer Wooters (Ryan Gosling), technical guru Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), gruff sharpshooter Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his sidekick Ramirez (Michael Pena), and the rough and tumble Washington (Anthony Mackie), to bring Cohen to justice using their very particular set of skills.
It’s a solid premise, and one that’s been mined in dozens of gangster movies before this one. (Most recently, though, this territory has been covered in the video game L.A. Noire, which hits on all the story beats that appear in this film in a much more satisfying way. Since directly comparing a video game to a film isn’t quite fair, I’ll leave it at that.) Just because the topic has been covered before doesn’t automatically mean this film couldn’t stand among the classics in the genre, but from the opening moments, it became clear that Will Beall’s infantile screenplay wasn’t going to allow that to happen. This is Beall’s first produced feature screenplay, and as a former LAPD cop, you’d think there would be a hint of intelligence under the surface of his swagger-filled, guns-blazing detective story. Sadly, that’s not the case.
The dialogue tries so hard to be smooth and cool, especially from Gosling’s womanizer character (“Where’s the tomato?” he asks in regard to his redheaded co-star Emma Stone’s whereabouts), but even though the leads look dashing in their tailored suits and fedoras, they can’t make this nonsense sound good. There is no subtlety here. Penn’s evil gangster delivers insanely cheesy one-liners with all the personality of a brick wall, and savage violence flies in and out of the movie like a haphazard tornado lost in the multiplex, occasionally wandering into your theater every few minutes before abruptly leaving. (Don’t you hate those?) “You know the drill,” Penn says to his henchman, immediately before said henchman drills a man to death. It’s that kind of surface level stuff that I would have absolutely loved when I was 15, and if I hadn’t seen The Untouchables, L.A. Confidential, or any other respectable gangster noir film, my fifteen-year-old self might have proclaimed it one of my favorites of the year. (Although to be fair I must give props to the best line of the movie: “The whole town’s underwater, and you’re grabbing a bucket instead of a bathing suit.”)
As with many stories set in this time period, the shadow of the war looms large over the male psyches here. But though the end of the war is directly addressed multiple times – the chief asks O’Mara to fight in “occupied territory” yet again, O’Mara’s wife continually has to remind him that the war is over, and O’Mara even uses it as an inspirational point in a speech to his men – the movie never actually takes the time to dig in and explore what that means in the context of these different characters. All of them essentially act the same, busting into every situation ill-prepared and with guns at the ready, but when Gosling asks Brolin if he “wants to win or die trying,” it isn’t a meaningful character moment. It’s just another thing that sort of sounds cool. There’s no emotion behind the delivery or the response; despite the surface differences between characters (the smart guy, the sharpshooter, etc.), these men are all soldiers that are constantly pulling triggers even when they don’t have guns in their hands.
Along with a lack of satisfying character development, grown men often behave like children here, refusing to learn from their mistakes even after they admit to making them. The gangster squad bursts into place after place, roughing up Cohen’s thugs and getting into close calls without ever having a solid plan, and at one point I started hoping that one of them would die quickly just so it would give the rest of them their cliched newfound resolve to finish the case and avenge their fallen brother. There’s a simplified wire tapping story shoehorned in, but after watching HBO’s “The Wire,” it makes these supposedly professional characters look like total morons. At times the movie is a live action cartoon (complete with a comical jailbreak straight out of a Looney Tunes episode), but then it becomes gravely serious, and then switches again to a sort of pop-infused fun, soaking up the glitz and glamour of the era. It never finds its footing, and as a result the whole film feels like it’s treading water for the whole of its runtime.
Ruben Fleischer, who earned some geek cred with his work on Zombieland, makes some pretty baffling choices when it comes to the action sequences. A night car chase midway through the film was especially disappointing, with poorly established spacial relationships rendering it almost completely unintelligible. Speed ramping (ala Zack Snyder) is employed often, and whether it’s Mickey Cohen’s bulging vein swinging at a punching bag or a series of Christmas decorations systematically destroyed in a hotel shootout, there is nothing interesting about the effect on display here. Whatever novelty it once had has long worn off, and it’s going to take some sort of monumental shift in usage to convince me that it should ever be used again by anyone.
As for the cast, Brolin is stoic and hard-jawed enough to pull off the one-dimensional lead character. Gosling is good (even with a strange affectation), but his schtick gets old by the halfway point. Emma Stone is fine as a piece of eye candy, but third act attempts to turn her into something more than that are laughable. Ribisi is the movie’s moral center, a nice change of pace from weasels and weirdos he’s been portraying over the past few years, and Mackie’s talents are totally wasted here. (He randomly throws knives at people. That’s about it.) Penn clearly put some effort into his portrayal of Cohen (complete with what appeared to be flesh-colored Play-Doh attached to his face, his visage channeling the villains of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy), but again, he can only do so much with comically bad dialogue.
So I’ll leave you with this awesome joke I just came up with: Gangster Squad? More like Gangster Squandering A Great Premise, am I right? But seriously folks…for a film with so much talent on the screen, it’s a shame that this script was so abysmal. And with writer Will Beall having already taken a crack at the screenplay for Warner Bros. upcoming superhero teamup Justice League, something tells me that Marvel is going to continue its cinematic dominance for years to come. Until next time…