In its opening moments, Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad shrouds itself in the right amount of pulpy brevity. Sergeant John O’Mara, our meat-and-potatoes lead played by a grizzled Josh Brolin, beats down a group of thugs to save an aspiring actress from becoming another LA statistic. Had the film stayed on course and bottled that air of late 40s, City of Angels brutality, we’d likely be talking about Gangster Squad years from now. As is, the film drifts rather quickly into rudimentary action, the kind you’ll forget about quickly and won’t think twice until you kill some time with it on TNT in a few years.
Fleischer’s third film, a departure from the comedic stylings he built his career on in Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, is ambitious – a period piece beautifully immersed in a bygone era harkening to a time when men were men and dames were dames. But a depressingly rudimentary script and identity crisis keep the film from approaching anything special. Even with a powerhouse cast and resplendent Dion Beebe cinematography, there seems to be a glass ceiling of quality that Gangster Squad can’t break in its rare attempts.
Squad’s success is as an action piece, but mileage varies depending on how steeped you are in the genre’s well-worn tropes. Will Beall’s script pieces together one tired cliché after another. Any originality must’ve been an afterthought for the screenwriter, as if we wouldn’t notice on account of era and setting. Brolin’s character brought the war home with him, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is the rule-breaker with a heart of gold, Emma Stone’s the damsel in distress, so on.
The moment when one of the many leads shares a monologue about making a better Los Angeles for his son, instantly you know he’s as good as dead in the next scene. When O’Mara’s wife leaves him because he’s too attached to the case, well, have you seen Dark Blue, Hollywood Homicide, Public Enemies, LA Confidential, Public Enemies, Hot Fuzz, Bad Boys II, The Rookie, The Rocketeer, The Untouchables or Dick Tracy?
Yes? Then you’ve seen Gangster Squad.
Those last two films in particular, as this movie never decides whether it wants to be The Untouchables or Dick Tracy, instead landing awkwardly in between. Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen, the gangster necessitating the squad, is a scene-chewing delight. A Jew who’s undercut the mob in the western territory, Cohen’s face is a mess of scars and bulbous features spurred by a past life as a boxing champ. Penn’s dialed into almost-Big Boy Caprice levels of gravitas. And when he wields a tommy gun it’s not hard to recall William Forsythe’s turn as Flattop in the Beatty-directed adaptation.
But it’s an atypical performance in a film that can’t stay grounded yet never flies. Brolin serves his role well, even if it’s underwritten. Ryan Gosling phones it in as a hotshot counterpoint to Brolin’s O’Mara. Gosling’s playing as much a character as Penn, though his is too lazily constructed. From an inconsistent accent to a bellicose stare that takes you out of the picture, nothing about Gosling works and I get the sense he just didn’t find his way into the material. He’s clearly lost on the outskirts.
Emma Stone, as Mickey’s trophy girl, is given too little to do to be of any real use while Mireille Enos fares much better as O’Mara’s dutiful wife. Giovani Ribisi, Anthony Mackey, Michael Peña are unfortunate background noise as members of the squad. Even Robert Patrick, clearly reveling in his role as a kind of cowboy marksman, is criminally underused. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Holt McCallany, struggling for scratch in a post-Lights Out world, in a great henchman role.
Beebe and company make a wise choice in going digital during the shoot, as the pristine, beautifully-rendered imagery suits the era far better than you’d expect. But it’s window dressing in an otherwise messy work.
Had Fleischer and Beall known where to focus their efforts, they could’ve avoided such a scatterbrained result. In trying to do too much they end up accomplishing very little. A decent yet inconsistent effort, Gangster Squad treads fertile territory and makes it forgettable.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars