It’s too bad Gangster Squad is rated R, because the audience it most deserves won’t be able to purchase a ticket. This is Dick Tracy-meets-The Untouchables filled with cartoon caricatures that create a tonal hodgepodge that left me wondering “Is this supposed to be funny?” Then again, funny or not, it certainly isn’t any good.
Set in 1949, and inspired by (but not nearly a true story) Paul Lieberman’s seven-part, 2008 Los Angeles Times feature “Tales From the Gangster Squad“, the film started coming together back in 2011 with an impressive list of names attached.
Sean Penn plays East Coast mob boss Mickey Coen whose about to find his organization under attack by Josh Brolin‘s all-rules-are-off band of cops. Brolin plays Sgt. John O’Mara and of the others that join him, Ryan Gosling‘s Jerry Wooters gets the most screen time while Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie and Giovanni Ribisi make up the supporting players.
This self-proclaimed “Gangster Squad” sets out to shut down Mickey and his illegal activities in Los Angeles at the behest of the marble-mouthed Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) and they plan on shooting up as much of the town as necessary to do it.
Looking at the cast it would seem we’re off to a decent start. However, there comes a point where the cast doesn’t matter once you take a closer look at the screenplay and the man calling the shots.
Director Ruben Fleischer‘s Zombieland was a straight-up farcical zombie comedy and he followed that up with the disastrous 30 Minutes or Less. Whether you like either of those films or not, I think it’s safe to assume neither sets a flattering expectation for Gangster Squad. The story would seem best fit for the likes of Michael Mann (Heat), but Fleischer is so ill-fit for the material there’s no reason to expect that kind of film, and the longer you watch you begin to wonder just what kind of film was expected?
Written by first time feature writer Will Beall, you would think the screenplay must have meshed with Fleischer’s comedic sensibilities and maybe this could all work. Problem is, Fleischer’s sensibilities aren’t straight-laced enough for this kind of a project. There isn’t a Danny McBride character that farts and says inappropriate things for no reason. There are only a few one-liners. The rest is a glossy, police soap opera with more gunfire than I’ve seen in a long time, making that well-publicized release date delay due to the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting seem like just a bunch of smoke and mirrors to cover up for a bad movie.
Curiously, Fleischer does show moments of wanting to want to break free of any comedy. He shows some want for experimentation. A few camera movements during a rather generic car chase scene and a tracking shot following Gosling into a club certainly stand out. Then he goes the other direction and plays the cheap, Zack Snyder-slow-motion-action card as bullets rip through candles and casings tinkle to the granite flooring. The result is a film that wants to play to youthful audiences with all the cliche movie trappings it can muster, seemingly made by a guy that respects the classics most adults and film fans fondly remember. These two approaches don’t go together.
Admittedly, there is potential inside Gangster Squad and it isn’t immediately disagreeable. Gosling’s wannabe, high-pitched Humphrey Bogart shtick is initially bothersome, but you grow to like it. Even Penn hamming it up as Cohen isn’t all bad. Then, sooner or later you begin to realize you don’t know or care anything about these characters.
Mickey’s a bad guy because he had that guy ripped in half by two cars. Gosling wants Mickey’s girl (Emma Stone) and mourns the shoe shine kid. Brolin has a pregnant wife at home (resulting in one of the stupidest scenes near the end of the film) as does Ribisi with a wife and son. Patrick, Pena and Mackie are essentially cardboard standees. This is the extent of the relationship you have with these characters and any additional nuance is absent otherwise.
Gangster Squad is a paint-by-numbers attempt at a gangster film. Gritty is assumed because it begins with a gnarly bit of violence, has plenty of bullets flying around and a lot of bloodshed and shouting. But in the end it has the appearance of a poser, unsure of itself and decreasing in entertainment value as it boom, boom, blams to its conclusion.