Film Review: Gangster Squad

The year is 1949, we’re deep in the heart of Los Angeles, and Sean Penn and Josh Brolin are whacking each other like scrapping schoolmates.  Welcome to Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s third directorial bow; a film which marks a change in pace following his previous comedic outings.  After attracting attention with the cracking Zombieland and the relatively competent 30 Minutes Or Less, Fleischer has upped his game for Warner Bros. in the form of Gangster Squad: a slick, glam beast which boasts a smoking cast of A-Listers and an inflated budget of $60m.  With such promising elements in place, and with the hype nicely building thanks to a sleek marketing campaign, The Coolest Film Of 2012 looked primed and ready.

Unfortunately, things haven’t been as smooth as all that.  For one, production was delayed in summer when a whole scene had to be cut and replaced in the wake of the tragic Aurora cinema shootings.  Gangster Squad’s release date was thus bumped back to early 2013, allowing the hype to swell even higher in the meantime.  Additionally, if you weren’t bedazzled by the ice-cool trailers and teasers, the problems inherent to its construction may have started to stick out.  From seeds of fact, a bombastic tale has been sewn, and while dosing the material with glitz and glamour, Fleischer and co. seem to have become a little too carried away, reducing what should have been a lean, punchy crime thriller into a rather flat, generic gangster flick which doesn’t offer much beyond its surface gloss.

Real-life gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has got LA by the balls, commanding a vast empire with the only uncorrupted police factions too scared to touch him.  LAPD Chief Bill Parker (a worryingly gravelly Nick Nolte) finally decides to take action – from behind his desk, of course – by hiring the straight-up Sergeant John O’Mara to assemble an undercover police unit.  This ‘gangster squad’ have one simple aim: to bring down Cohen in any way they can.  If this all sounds a little bit like The Untouchables, it is: expect stakeouts in seedy downtown bars, a criminal mastermind none too pleased about the shift in authority, and a hearty helping of firepower.

Speaking of the latter, it must be said that Gangster Squad does provide plenty of bang for your buck.  Penn himself is a menacing presence indeed, snarling and snapping his way through criminal patter and occasionally erupting in volatile bursts of anger.  His Cohen may not be perfectly formed, but there’s a magnetism to his performance, which serves the film well as it builds to its reckless climax.  It’s a shame that – several exceptions aside – the heroes aren’t nearly as engaging.

It’s possible that this is down to Will Beall’s screenplay.  His first real stab at a Hollywood film shows patches of promise, but by and large he leans heavily on generic clichés which sap the film’s energy.  Few of the actors are granted roles to really sink their teeth into, and it does feel like such a waste of talent to see the likes of Emma Stone and Josh Brolin saddled with such stock parts to play.  Stone looks ravishing as ever as Cohen’s moll, but she never once has a chance to serve as anything more than eye candy.  Likewise, while Brolin invests O’Mara with a steely conviction and a moody growl, there’s nothing setting his protagonist apart from the crowd.

Thankfully, the ever-reliable Gosling is often close at hand to weave his magic.  He elevates the film as the drawling Jerry Wooters, treading his way around the script’s potholes with a deft touch and opening up a big old tin of Badass when he finally reaches for his sidearm.  Either Beall’s characterisation skills finally coalesced here, or Gosling just has a gift with the material, because whenever Wooters is on screen, Gangster Squad flies.  That’s not something which can be said of the remaining squad members, whose stock roles (guy sharp with a knife; guy sharp with a gun; junior cop who’s barely even in it) prevent otherwise able actors from making their presence felt.

As for the action, although Fleischer’s fondness for slo-mo has been apparent since Zombieland, his temptations finally rush into overdrive this time around, with several of Gangster Squad’s action sequences worthy of Zack Snyder himself.  Lighters flicker to life in extreme close-up, bullets tumble to the ground balletically, and in one (hilarious) case, a bauble bursts apart in a shower of golden splinters.  It’s all too much, especially considering that elsewhere, the director shows potential: the tension prior to a Chinatown shootout is handled nicely, and on the occasions that RyGo gets his hands dirty, it can become genuinely exhilarating.  But when the bulk of the film’s action is dealt with in such a ham-fisted way, it comes across as self-indulgent and bloated rather than stirring.  The climax is a boxing match?  What?!  No!  Just shoot the fucker!

When all’s been said, whether you find yourself enjoying its slick action stylings or chuckling at its edifice, there’s no denying that Gangster Squad is an entertaining romp: whether intentionally or not, it will leave you grinning at least a couple of times over its course.  If only it didn’t take itself so seriously, perhaps it would be more of a hoot than it’s actually turned out to be.

Gangster Squad is an unconditional triumph of style over substance.  Deft writing and sharp characterisation are off the table, but even so, you’ll probably indulge in a whoop or two at some point here.




Posted on January 20, 2013, in The Film World and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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