Film Review: Gangster Squad

by Jason LeRoy on January 10, 2013


starring: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Giovanni Ribisi

screenplay: Will Beall

directed by: Ruben Fleischer

MPAA: Rated R for strong violence and language

When Gangster Squad‘s fall 2012 release date was delayed until this month for a last-minute reshoot (it originally featured a climactic sequence in which gunmen fired shots into a theater from behind the movie screen, which was scrapped and reworked following the Aurora shooting), many were concerned the fall movie season was losing one of its most surefire hits. Directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and featuring a powerhouse cast, Gangster Squad seemed like a no-brainer. And now that I’ve seen it, I can say that it’s definitely a no-brainer — but not in a good way. Weep not for Gangster Squad, because this by-the-numbers cops and crooks flick was never gonna be a contender.

The setting is Hollywood in 1949, and the town’s booming post-war glow is being blighted by the fearsomely powerful and well-connected “East Coast” (Jewish) gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, proving that “full retard” is an actorly approach you can apply to any character). Cohen runs Hollywood from top to bottom, with even the cops and judges residing happily in his pockets. But not the LAPD’s Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), who isn’t seduced by Cohen’s ill-gained wealth and wants his conquest of the city halted in its tracks. So he reaches out to Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a WWII vet with a pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), and unofficially-officially asks him to organize a covert squad to take Cohen down.

O’Mara shares Parker’s wish to see L.A. rescued from this seedy New York influence (presumably so it can begin developing its own distinctly Californian seedy influence), and sets off assembling his little Ocean’s 11-style dream team of cops and ex-soldiers. One recruit is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a jaded and boozy young detective who becomes personally involved when he gets mixed up with Cohen’s arm candy, Grace (Emma Stone). The rest of the team is defined entirely by their thinly sketched types: the brainy one (Giovanni Ribisi), the grizzled one (Robert Patrick), the black one (Anthony Mackie), and the Mexican one (Michael Peña).

After the audacious vitality of Zombieland, one would have hoped Fleischer would’ve invested a similarly bold creativity into reimagining the classic Hollywood crime noir. But aside from a few deliriously gory moments of ultraviolence (the film opens with a man chained to two car bumpers being ripped in half), there’s simply nothing about Gangster Squad to distinguish it. It is conventional and straightforward, embracing the hardboiled dialogue and familiar genre cliches but failing to contrast them against anything modern (see: Rian Johnson’s use of noir dialogue in his modern high school mystery Brick).

The superlative cast is almost entirely wasted; I haven’t seen this many A-listers phoning it in since the Hurricane Sandy telethon. Penn sails over the top as Cohen; to put it lightly, he could have used some reigning in. Brolin is affable and charmingly smirky, but could have given this performance in his sleep. Gosling just stands around looking exquisite in a series of well-tailored ’40s suits, peering seductively from beneath his fedora and occasionally mumbling a few lines in the latest iteration of his fake-ass accent. I am fine with this.

In her attempt to play a sultry dame, Emma Stone muffles her irrepressible spark down to a dying ember; she proves she can play against type and gets to explore a different facet of her seemingly inexhaustible chemistry with Gosling, but the role isn’t worthy of her. No one else has much to do; Peña is given an insultingly regressive character that essentially boils down to comic relief for being a Mexican named Navidad. Like Stone, he deserves better. Only The Killing‘s Mireille Enos manages to translate her weakly written role into a compelling screen performance; as Brolin’s wife, she reads her naggy dialogue with a hushed emotional intensity that commands your attention.

Like L.A. Confidential without the complexity or intelligence, Gangster Squad is an uninspired genre homage unworthy of the talent involved with it. Character development is nonexistent, with insights limited to a scene where Brolin and Gosling discuss the uncertainties of their post-war roles. But of all the throwbacks to old-timey gangster movies, at least one is amusing: the remarkable incompetence of tommy guns, which can apparently be fired into crowded cars at close range without so much as grazing a seat. Maybe a tommy gun revival is the solution to the current gun debate; they have the look and feel that gun nuts love while doing little damage other than lightly fraying the nerves.

Gangster Squad opens nationwide on Friday, January 11.

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