Gangster Squad

Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 01/27/13 01:27:13

"L.A Insubstantial"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Ruben Fleischer burst promisingly onto the scene with 2009’s “Zombieland”, an amusing, cleverly scribed and vibrant pastiche of undead conventions in the horror genre. His latest effort “Gangster Squad” also feels satirically mounted upon viewing, although perhaps unintentionally. Rife with limp characters, dismal dialogue, predictable screenwriting and over stylized action, the picture is a tonally inconsistent joke for most of its duration. No two creative forces appear to be on the same page when it comes to “Gangster Squad”; Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin think they’re making “The Untouchables 2”, Sean Penn is seemingly auditioning for a pantomime and Fleischer himself adopts so many intrusive elements of contemporary action move aesthetic it becomes unbearable. The middle section of the film finds some degree of stability and comfort, but that’s the best which can be said for this bizarre production.

Los Angeles 1949. Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is a mobster effectively running the city, using drugs, prostitution and his troop of iron-fisted goons to command total dominance. Though supposedly thought untouchable by the law, the LAPD decide to mount an offensive against Cohen, putting together a team of rogues to halt the gangster’s anarchic reign by whatever means possible. Headed up by determined Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), this off the books mission seeks to disable Cohen’s power at the source, by disrupting drug shipments, invading his establishments and violently dispatching of his employees. However soon the ruthless villain gets wind of the scheme, his malicious streak widened thanks to Jerry Wooter’s (Ryan Gosling) (a member of the squad) liaison with Cohen’s squeeze Grace (Emma Stone).

“Gangster Squad” is a stylistic mess, clearly in thrall to the genre’s previous highpoints, but unable to match them in any shape or form. The production design and setting are crisply envisioned, but Fleischer’s habit of punctuating moments of action with absurdly over the top visual intervention is laughable and contrary to an immersive viewing experience. These are individually cool ideas and pretty pictures in their own right, but the film-maker fails to inject them into his narrative or the rhythm of action with any purpose or point. His fetishistic obsession with slo-mo does “Gangster Squad” more harm than good, especially during the lopsided finale where it is clumsily deployed to hide a lack of invention rather than inject the set-piece with dynamism.

The screenplay adheres to standard genre tropes and boasts a host of despicably poor dialogue. There are lines in “Gangster Squad” that would make amateur writers cringe, and the characterization is non-existent. There are recognisable arcs here (DOA romance between Stone and Gosling, an undercurrent of boxing metaphors) but they aren’t incorporated into the generic story with any care or nuance, robbing “Gangster Squad” of serious genre credential. Tonally it’s flawed, at times the thing seems to be playing as a lampoon, but in other moments the violence and hackneyed attempts at emotional heft suggest a more serious and ambitious desire. Either way, the picture doesn’t balance well, the inconsistencies crossing over into the performances. Gosling and Stone are left gormless thanks to listless scripting, with only Josh Brolin really impressing. As for Penn? Well he’s clearly having a ball, munching scenery like it’s a staple of his diet, but that doesn’t make for a particularly threatening villain. He’s more like a clown than an agent of fear and corruption.

The second act feels more professionally assembled, fighting to attain a skillful mix of flighty relief and harsher reality. It’s in this 20 minute portion that Fleischer builds a modicum of momentum, before sadly letting it all seep away thanks to the joyless conclusion. “Gangster Squad” is a poor start to 2013, and a minor insult to its prestigious genre. You might giggle a few times, but any cheesy pleasure derived from this debacle is likely unintentional.

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