Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and Michael Pena in a movie director by Ruben Fleischer—this is certain to be stuff of legends. I mean come on, a film by the guy who directed a comedy about surviving a zombie apocalypse featuring the aforementioned talent and then some, including Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and the list just goes on and on. Surely a movie of this magnitude couldn’t possibly fail right?… Well kind of wrong, and don’t call me “surely”. Gangster Squad instead seems to buckle under its own star power barely skating by as a standard, run of the mill gangster film. What a disappointment too, because my expectations were as high as Nolte during this debacle.
GHB is the life for me!
Set in 1949 Los Angeles, Mickey Cohen (Penn) is a Jewish gangster hell-bent on running Los Angeles the only way a thug of his stature knows how; buying off cops, selling heroin in the streets, having an illegal prostitution ring, and brutally sending anyone who steps in his way to sleep with the fishes. However, Sgt. John O’ Mara (Brolin), one of the few members of the LAPD who hasn’t been bought off by Mickey, has had enough of seeing his city handed to Mickey’s power-hungry hands. John gets his chance to bring back Mickey when Chief Parker (Nolte) gives him the leeway to form a squad of cops rough enough to go toe to toe with Mickey. John recruits a cocktail of lawmen from different areas of expertise, but all prepare to risk their lives for the sake of their city.
Visually, Gangster Squad is astounding, far exceeding the looks of gangster films of the past. The colors of 1940’s L.A. are so vibrant they almost glow. Hair and makeup are immaculate and the costume design is remarkably spot-on. Everyone just looks gorgeous and oh so cool, just like what photographs and films from that era portray. While there’s not enough in the script given to the actors to merit “good” performances, Sean Penn does, however, steal the film as the menacing Mickey Cohen. His character exudes a bit of class while still being a cutthroat villain, easily able to make you feel he’s received your pleas and will deliver mercy, before ultimately having his goons put a drill to your face the moment he walks away.
“I always make sure I take off my hat before I burn women with my cigars. See, I’m a polite guy!”
Aside from that, Gangster Squad is sadly just “meh.” Most of this has to do with its plainly mediocre script. I wasn’t sure if Gangster Squad was attempting to be a nod to 1930s gangster films or just a poorly written modern day one thanks in part to the virtually one dimensional characters who possess little to no complexities and whose backgrounds are never exposed, making it hard to connect with them. John is your average cop with a heart that bleeds justice. There’s only right and wrong to him, thus as a cop it’s his job to destroy the wrong, despite the chance of losing his wife and unborn child in the process. There’s never any moment of regret in his decisions or any internal conflict over his insatiable desire to bring down Mickey. Also fellow squad member Jerry (Gosling) and his love affair with Mickey’s girl, Grace (Stone), just doesn’t make sense as it’s never explained how long the relationship has gone on as well as how they haven’t been caught. The two often discuss how if caught Mickey will destroy them both, but that fear and urgency to avoid Mickey is never shown. Many events in the film don’t happen naturally to the world these characters exist in; instead their motivations are caused by typical movie plot devices.
Do any of you guys understand why you’re doing such a risky job? No? I didn’t think so.
Therefore, leading to the film’s weakest element; the fact that it’s just a plain old fair film. There’s nothing new, special, or mind-blowing about it. Despite all the talent on screen there’s little to no room for actual acting. Ryan Gosling, who I could watch paint a wooden fence for hours on end and still swoon, was giving nothing to write home about except a probably one minute scene in which he and Grace argue over breakfast about their relationship status with Mickey involved. You only get a taste of Gosling’s intensity before the scene ends hanging in the air. Emma Stone is sadly at her worst in Gangster Squad, but I chock that up to her having nothing work with, just as most of the cast’s talents are similarly wasted.
While there are moments of great brutality, like when audiences watch a character die at the hands of Mickey by being ripped apart by two cars, nothing else about Gangster Squad stands out above the numerous gangster films made before it, a sad testament in an age that has seen the span of gangster films since cinema’s infancy.
Gangster Squad got a 34% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I think that’s ridiculous. Gangster Squad is far from a terrible film. It’s entertaining, funny in parts, and as stylish as they come. The plot starts with a problem and ends with a solution and the ride in between ain’t so bad, but just isn’t a memorable film. I think the problem for most critics was their expectations, which I get, because I had them too. Too many people have compared this film to The Untouchables, and therein where the problem lies. If you go in expecting The Untouchables then prepare to be disappointed, because Gangster Squad doesn’t work on that same vein of seriousness. Instead it acts more as a gangster film from the past: just one of the many that got made during the golden age of the genre but just couldn’t match the greatness of its predecessors. Gangster Squad is best left to be seen on DVD or TV in the near future, but no time soon.
Take a Drink: every time slow motion takes place in a scene
Take a Drink: for every reference to boxing by Mickey Cohen
Do a Shot: when the people you expect to die do.
Take a Drink: every time John’s wife mentions their baby.