GANGSTER SQUAD Review

What has happened to director Ruben Fleischer? The guy had such a promising feature debut in Zombieland and has had ample opportunity to make equally fun films in his two follow-ups yet each have failed to capture that same magic that invigorated his first. In saying that, his latest Gangster Squad isn't necessarily a bad film but it certainly isn't anything spectacular. With a cast that features the likes of Josh Brolin (who actually seems to be losing credibility with each role), the re-teaming of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (whose relationship has none of the substance their previous screen incarnations did), supporting players like Anthony Mackie (loving these low grade B-movies, isn't he?), Michael Pena (he deserves much better than this), Robert Patrick (maybe the best part of the movie), and Nick Nolte (is he even acting?) you expect there to be some level of fun that comes along with it. Unfortunately, the experience of the film is something more akin to an assignment you feel more relieved to have finished after going through the doldrums of every standard cliche and requirement rather than having experienced anything close to a genuine emotion. In other words, Gangster Squad is very simply a complacent piece of entertainment that reaches for nothing more than what requirements it needs to qualify as a coherent story. Then there is the issue of Sean Penn as head gangster Mickey Cohen. The likes of which could have been a great, flashy, over-the-top character but instead turns out to be a campy, cheesy villain instead. This also echoes an issue with the entire film in general where it doesn't know exactly what it wants to be and if the makers don't know where to go with it, we don't know how to take it and it all falls apart from there.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in Gangster Squad.
Based on the true events surrounding Mickey Cohen and his gang in late 40's Los Angeles as they try to take over the city; the film tells the story of the lone honest cops left in the deteriorating town. Led by chief of police Bill Parker (Nolte) who recruits a straight and narrow WWII vet bent on still being the hero they plan to stop Cohen before he gets too big to handle. As Sgt. John O'Mara Brolin does fine enough work even if he does play into a certain set of constructs. He can at least pull off the time period and feel genuine in this aspect which some of the cast find more challenging. O'Mara who, after taking down three of Cohen's thugs on his own, is called in by Parker and assigned the task of putting together a squad of young men who are willing to go off the grid and get dirty without getting any of the glory. This being where we meet the crew of specific types including the no holds barred, break all the rules detective from the other side of town Coleman Harris (Mackie) the retired gun who still has it in him Max Kennard (Patrick) and his sidekick Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who know one else wants on their team. There is the brains of the operation Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) and finally, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling) a man who had long since given up on trying to prevent LA from slipping into the inevitable hands of the mob. In an unfortunate turn of events (that we see coming from a mile away, might I re-enforce) he is motivated to join his old friend O'Mara in the fight to take down Cohen while in the process stealing his new girl Grace Faraday (Stone).

All of this gives you plenty of indication where the movie's going and how it will inevitably play out. Of course we know how it's going to end, but Fleischer and his writer Will Beall (with an adaptation from Paul Lieberman's book) tend to stay away from infusing the film with any sense of unexpected fun like you would find if similar themed flicks such as The Untouchables or L.A. Confidential. Those movies were able to add more than the most obvious layers into their proceedings whereas Gangster Squad remains neutral in never rising above the standard or dipping into the horribly boring. There is plenty to like here, let that not be mistaken as the film overall looks great and functions on a high level style-wise. The city, as a character, feels authentic and the cast all looks great and most of them give fine performances. Neither Penn nor Stone are given enough to do here to justify their presence but besides Brolin, it is nice to see Gosling create a kind of character and deliver the lines with a certain style that represents the period more than if he'd simply chosen to play a version of himself. It's also close to impossible to not have a little bit of fun when you have people like Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Pena collaborating with one another. The film is generally a fun time, it never becomes a drag, but it is predictable and there is always that looming issue of it having an identity crisis. The film sways back and forth between the campy lampooning verve and the seriously disturbing violence-fest that it turns into from time to time. I can find both parts equally enjoyable, there is no problem there, it is the way the movie never finds its true calling and can't seem to decide what type of movie it would rather be that is more distracting than entertaining.

Sean Penn as gangster Mickey Cohen. 
In this lies the throughline issue with the film, but in the end the movie feels so nonchalant about itself that we find it difficult to feel anything more than similar. That doesn't qualify it as a bad movie and it doesn't mean I won't ever watch it again as I was rather excited to see the film and found enough to like to have a fun enough time with it. Though it sometimes drifts between drastically different tones I thought it was at least highly stylized different tones. That it was clear Fleischer had a love for the time period and paid very close attention to the details of that specific era and even in more than just the clothes and architecture but things such as the music and the technology used at the time. It all seems very strictly adhered to in terms of getting it right. If the director had placed as much effort into the execution of his story and invested in the way he told that story as much as the way the film looked we would likely not have a case where style trumped substance. Still, the film more than serves its purpose as a shoot-em up, pulpy homage to the gangster genre even if it is nothing more than a homage and won't join the ranks of the films it aspires to be like. I had a fine enough time with it to recommend the film on a rainy, Sunday afternoon but can also guarantee it won't leave any type of impression, but rather be a fun and forgettable experience. This fact only irritates me because it has the makings of a much better film than it turned out to be. Penn could have really turned in something of a prestigious performance here, but is reduced to a sideline joke as the film never gives him time to expand and invest. By the time it comes down to that final showdown scene there is nothing close to the inspired grit a man of his evil justifications should have but more a stock character with bland motives who we enjoy seeing get the crap beat out of him.