Worth A Look: 8.33%
Pretty Bad: 33.33%
Total Crap: 29.17%
3 reviews, 6 user ratings
by Brett Gallman
In its attempt to update classic gangster films, “Gangster Squad” misses out on a key element of those films: danger.There’s a reason movies like Hawks’s “Scarface” was ruthlessly cut and had a preface foisted upon it to act as a disclaimer for the loose morals of its characters. While they typically upheld the era’s black-and-white morality, these films did their best to edge into grey areas by crafting compelling gangsters as leads and thrusting them into films that were often violent and seductive.
"Fun, but I wouldn't call it untouchable."
Perhaps we’re too far removed from those days for a film to tap into the same sort of fears of the 30s, but “Gangster Squad” barely attempts to update the old standard beyond enhancing the genre’s violence and swagger. Without a real sense of transgression or peril, though, it’s just an enjoyable bit of fluff that recalls the harmless pulp comics referenced by the film itself.
Set in late-40s Los Angeles, eastern mobster and former boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is making a power play to take over the city’s gambling racket. For police chief Bill Parker (played mostly by Nick Nolte's gravelly vocal chords), it’s a declaration of war, so he puts together a covert squad of cops to bust up Cohen’s ranks in a battle to save the city’s soul. World War II veteran John O’Meara (Josh Brolin) is tapped to lead the squad, which eventually fills out its ranks with some fellow detectives (Ryan Gosling and Anthony Mackie), a wire-tapping genius (Giovanni Ribisi), and a cowboy gunslinger (Robert Patrick) who comes with his own Mexican sidekick (Michael Pena).
“Gangster Squad” then unfolds along the expected track that takes viewers through the requisite shootouts, the steamy sex, the crackling, gang-busting montage, the retaliation, and, finally, the big showdown. Each arrives in orderly fashion, as the film rarely puts up a fuss. The various subplots are mined from the stock gangster movie well: Brolin’s angle finds him struggling with his dedication to his work and his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), who often chides him for his reckless pursuits. Meanwhile, Brolin falls for Cohen’s main squeeze (Emma Stone), an illicit affair that poses even more danger for both of them but never significantly raises the stakes.
Everyone else on the squad serves as window dressing and are nothing more than a collection of one-liners, quips, and talents.
They’re well-arranged window-dressing though, as the lack of scripted depth is compensated by the performers, so most manage to be memorable. Somewhat ironically, lead Brolin is the most blank slate—he’s the square-jawed good guy whose defining characteristic is his relentless devotion to duty, but Brolin does manage to bring the quiet, amiable authority that’s necessary to the role.
Instead of a baby-faced idealist, Gosling is a boozing, cynical detective; however, he can’t be all that bad because he pals around with a street-urchin. Plus, Gosling still plays him with a disarming sense of charm; he’s supposed to be the group’s loose cannon, its rogue with good intentions, but he’s just about as orderly as everything else in the movie.
Still, the approach is in line with the movie’s overall aim—this is a mob movie, but it doesn’t really get its hands dirty or anything, and even the half-hearted contemplations on how the good guys can’t tell the difference between themselves and the mob because they’ve resorted to wire-tapping seem laughably obligatory. I don’t think we’ll have a “Zero Dark Thirty” style debate with “Gangster Squad,” a film that climaxes with a heavily stylized shootout and often feels more cool than serious.
As expected, it’s most fun when Ruben Fleischer just lets loose and allows the actors to bounce off of each other. Despite being relegated to the background for most of the movie, many of the bit players bring the film’s personality. Robert Patrick is kind of the film’s unsung hero as Kennard, the cowboy-detective who’s gunned down so many thugs he’s earned his own comic series. The character looks and sounds as if he’s leapt right off of those pages and is so fun that I’d watch a whole film dedicated to him. (In a testament to how uneven the film is, though, Pena is largely forgettable and wasted as his sidekick.)
It’s a wonder any of these guys survived Sean Penn’s magnetic field, though. From the opening scene, which finds him quoting Lugosi’s Dracula and relishing in severing a rival gangster in two, Penn makes a concentrated effort to devour the film whole. Somehow, he doesn’t manage to chew through the silly prosthetic nose that comically accentuates an already cartoonish performance that sees the actor recall the operatic qualities of Cagney’s performances in similar roles.
More often than not, though, the turn feels like a hyper-aware version of such a performance, especially when Penn spits out silly one-liners. Like his cinematic predecessors, Cohen is charismatic and the most interesting character in the film; however, he’s also the most despicable, as there’s no attempt to paint him as a sympathetic sort. This is a guy who lights his cronies on fire for screwing up; even worse, he’s made poor Emma Stone his arm candy, a capacity that doesn’t leave the actress a whole lot to do, but she lights up the screen with the grace of a seasoned starlet. In another testament to the film’s utter safeness, it’s difficult to even say she’s a femme fatale, even though she certainly looks the part.
In general, “Gangster Squad” has little trouble looking the part. Dion Beebe’s photography often betrays its woefully digital roots with a certain flatness, but the production design itself is an immaculate recreation of the age. The locales are glitzy, the guys wear cool hats, and the whole thing is just very Old Hollywood. Even the dialogue is often delightfully cornball and snappy. As a surface, aesthetics-level update of old school gangster flicks, it’s a success.
If only it were something more. All told, “Gangster Squad” is probably an action scene or two from being at least memorable. It’s a bit surprising that the director of “Zombieland” can’t drum up anything beyond serviceable in this department despite his best efforts to empty the directorial kitchen sink with various tics and wrinkles. The result is slick and energetic, so the film breezes along at a nice, pulpy clip and doesn’t even bother to slow down during its few dramatic moments (there actually are some important deaths, but even these feel calculated to bring a false sense of gravitas and heft).That reflects big issue resting at the center of “Gangster Squad.” Fleischer has crafted something that falls between an actual movie and a cartoon, which causes it to feel kind of earnest but also insubstantial. Since he doesn’t truly explore beyond the idea of a gangster film, Fleischer crafts a pretty generic one that has the look but not the soul. I don’t know if I’d really call it a failure for that; after all, perhaps this is supposed to be more “Dick Tracy” than “The Public Enemy.” There’s a place for that, and “Gangster Squad” occupies it predictably enough.
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originally posted: 01/13/13 15:37:26