Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) Los Angeles gangster noir, has made a much-publicised journey to screens. Following the cinema shooting tragedy in Aurora, trailers were pulled from running before features and there were announced re-shoots to key sequences – one apparently involving the characters shooting at moviegoers with submachine guns. With a dunderheaded cliché-heavy screenplay, and nonsensical stylistic indulgences aplenty, a host of talented actors are unfortunately short-changed by this bland, cartoonish endeavour that sways between being violent and nasty and woefully miscued farce. Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a ruthless Brooklyn-born gangster, will soon have his hand in the entirety of the wire betting west of Chicago, in addition to his Los Angeles gambling, drug and prostitution rackets. He has most of the police force, as well as influential judges and politicians, in his pocket and no one dares to cross him. Following an individual vigilante crackdown of one of Cohen’s rings, Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is approached by his police chief (Nick Nolte) and asked to put together a squad – a ragtag band of trustworthy detectives and uniformed police alike, including O’Mara’s friend and fellow war vet Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) – that would operate outside of the LAPD jurisdiction in a brash attempt to foil Cohen’s potential financial benefits and take down his gang.
What this outfit does is far from legal and often stoops to the level of the men they are trying to overthrow. There are a couple of times the morality of their actions is questioned internally but their violent and celebrated behaviour is difficult to support. Yes, Cohen needed to be stopped, but I felt like the film needed to address the stress placed on the individual squad members. A few of them question O’Mara’s decisions to risk the lives of his team, his family and innocent civilians, but no one opposes him. There is no drama there at all, they simply accept that they are embroiled in a war, and that O’Mara is a decorated ‘fighter’. The film’s shallow themes and dramatic subplots are inert, and it is hard to feel emotionally involved when the characters are so thinly drawn and the outcomes so predictable.
The action sequences evolve guns blazing and account for some of the film’s most exciting moments. Submachine and Tommy gun fire rattles the eardrums, thousands of bullets miss their targets, CGI blood splatters onto glass and things explode. There is some unnecessary use of slow motion to heighten the tension, but this directionless shoot-em-up is clearly reliant on the appeal of its cast.
Gosling adds his usual suaveness – and he’s the film’s best attribute - but this is not a testing role. When he has to resort to lighting cigarettes in inventive ways and making his own fun, you know he’s got some bad material to work with. His romance with Emma Stone’s character (hello Crazy Stupid Love) completely lacks chemistry. He’s her way out from Mickey. What I didn’t buy was why she was with Mickey. She just was, and that was convenient for the plot.
Penn’s Mickey is the simply the baddie, the guy the good guys have to take down. Though his face looks like it is cocooned in a wax mask, Penn plays him as a tight-jawed grump with an unhinged, volatile temperament and as a result, completely one-dimensional. Brolin is bland and Nolte sounds so unhealthy the fact that he remains the police chief just doesn’t rub. Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Anthony Mackie are just…there, and Frank Grillo’s screen time is an abomination.
The score was uninspired and the hand-held digital camerawork and the editing of the shoot-outs leave a lot to be desired. A lengthy street-to-club shot, reminiscent of Goodfellas and Boogie Nights was nice to marvel at for a while, until one realises it is insignificant, and you know there is too much slow-mo when there is enough time to see a Christmas bauble explode amidst the fire fight. A high-speed pursuit through the country had some nice visual flourishes, but there was just no toughness or grit.
Re-shooting might have plagued Gangster Squad but there are many evident criticisms. ‘The Tales of the Gangster Squad: LA’s fight against Organized Crime’ could have worked as a regular cartoon piece in a tabloid magazine but on screen it lacks enough substance to challenge any audience and is too generic and silly to even offer up a memorable cinema experience.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22