GANGSTER SQUAD Movie Review
Ruben Fleischer’s newest film Gangster Squad begins in the year 1949. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) has not long returned to Los Angeles after serving in World War II. Upon coming home, he hoped to build an idyllic life by the sea with his family, but instead watched as his city quickly fell under the control of Chicago gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who rules his criminal empire with an iron fist.
A sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, the tough but honest O’Mara has fought almost singlehandedly against Cohen’s syndicate with little success – his efforts constantly thwarted by corrupt superiors making an extra income from the gangster. As the West Coast press slowly discover the corruption in the city leaving the reputation of the justice system in tatters, however, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) finally agrees it’s time for the good guys to take a stand and put a stop to Cohen by whatever means necessary.
He orders O’Mara to put together a squad of similarly minded officers to drive Cohen out of Los Angeles once and for all. Among O’Mara’s team are the tender but dangerous Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), wire expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), knife-wielding Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and sharpshooter Max Kenard (Robert Patrick) alongside partner Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena).
Once this promising set up is in place, Ruben Fleischer’s film observes this band of cops as they bend (but mostly break) the law to demolish Mickey Cohen’s empire brick by brick. In action-packed sequences, they take down his clubs, his drug runners, his gambling rackets – each hit denting the gangster’s income and threatening his position of power in the City Of Angels.
But this is precisely where Gangster Squad begins to go wrong. As the action kicks in the story slows to a crawl, drifting with no real drive or intent from one bullet-heavy shoot-out to the next. What began as a riveting tale of war veterans who have returned home only to find themselves in another battle becomes a simple, by-the-book action flick, as if Fleischer saw only the potential for mass mainstream appeal in this true story. Worse yet, these set pieces are often predicable. A wire-tap sequence fails to muster any suspense because it plays out so familiarly, for instance, while the film’s finale is an ugly crescendo of slo-mo photography and frenetic violence that would be more at home in Dredd 3D than a ‘40s gangster picture.
The major consequence of favoring style over substance in such a fashion is that many of the protagonists are underwritten to the point of being one-dimensional. Michael Pena, for example, has only a handful of lines in the film and carries no real attributes other than being ‘the rookie’ of squad. Similarly, we learn little more about Robert Patrick’s character than his ability to shoot with precision. They’re men with no motives, history or desires and, consequently, it’s difficult to care about their vigilantism.
The biggest victim of this lazy characterization, however, is Emma Stone. Rarely has there been a more frustrating female character than her Grace Faraday – Mickey Cohen’s girlfriend who falls in love with Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters. With little information about who she is it’s unclear why Grace cheats on Cohen with this officer – or even why she is attracted to either of them in the first place. But even more exasperating is how her character goes through enormous personal changes with little reasoning, much to the bemusement of the audience.
Thankfully, the performances are so skilled from the terrific ensemble that they’re able to rescue these shallow characters from being entirely dull. They bring charisma where Will Beall’s script falls short. Sean Penn is suitably over-the-top as the psychotic Cohen while Ryan Gosling employs a quiet sensitivity alongside an implosive tendency for violence. It’s Josh Brolin in the lead role who is the surprising star though. Arguably, it’s because he plays the only character with any real depth, but Brolin nonetheless tackles the role with aplomb reminding us of what he can do when given the opportunity sink his teeth into a part. It’s a return to the form we saw in True Grit, Milk and No Country For Old Men.
Gangster Squad is flashy, fast but only intermittently fun. It’s far too shallow in story and character to be a pointed James Ellory-esque tale of crime in ‘40s America yet not quite dazzling enough to entertain simply as a firecracker of stylized ultra-violence. Instead, it just meanders in between, absent of the vigor or verve needed to shine. It’s at best watchable, at worst forgettable.