‘Gangster Squad’ Review: Guns and Poses

By January 10, 2013

Rating: 2.5/5 Stars

The realization that a lot of Ruben Fleischer’s ‘Gangster Squad’ is following the beats and breaks and structure of Brian DePalma’s ‘The Untouchables’ loses much of its sting when you do the math and realize that it’s been 25 years since the 1987 release of De Palma’s crowd-pleasing gangster flick. After all, to the young moviegoers ‘Squad’ is hoping to pull in with familiar stars like Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Josh Brolin, 1987 may as well be the Cretaceous age, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and Sean Connery was still on movie screens.  Combining the retro-L.A. style of ‘L.A. Confidential,’ the candy-colored visuals of ‘Dick Tracy’ and entirely too much of ‘The Untouchables,’ ‘Gangster Squad’ doesn’t so much fail to succeed on its own merits, but instead fails because it lacks any merits of its own. It’s pretty, and the charismatic cast is easy to watch, but ‘Gangster Squad’ feels more inert than motivated, like watching a cover band lip-synch someone else’s greatest hits.

In post-war L.A., as gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) roars and rules with an iron fist, the cops are either powerless to stop Cohen or worse, on his payroll. Chief of Police Parker (Nick Nolte, his voice sounding even more like that of a bear calling for help while being drowned in a kettle of cheap scotch)  asks righteous cop O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together an off-the-books squad of cops who will work in secret to take Cohen down. Brolin recruits the smart nerd (Giovanni Ribisi) an old gunhand (Robert Patrick)  and his protégé (Michael Pena), a cop from South Central (Anthony Mackie) and, eventually, the seemingly shady (but ultimately moral) Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling).


Not helping matters is the fact that the film was pushed back by the Aurora massacre — specifically so a shootout sequence in a theater could be removed and re-shot — and you also can’t help but notice that the voiceover by Josh Brolin’s John O’Mara feels a little disconnected and righteous when contrasted with the fact the cops in the film essentially become vigilantes without warrants but with unofficial backing, and I have to wonder if the narration was changed in the light of the re-cut. (Of course, a few weeks before the new release there was yet another mass shooting, raising the interesting philosophical question of why exactly we change movie scenes and marketing after mass gun killings but never actual gun laws and policies, but I digress.)

Even without fate and heavy hands having altered ‘Gangster Squad,’ no torn-from-the-headlines event can explain the films’ curiously overdone cinematography by Dione Beebe that makes the film’s mix of sets and digital trickery look even more fake, or how shamelessly the film deals in moments we’ve seen before. (Gosling’s character’s ultimate reason for joining the squad comes in a scene that’s meant to be moving, but it’s mostly the ugly spawn of a thousand clichés.)

Based on L.A. Times reporter Paul Lieberman’s book, the script is adapted by ex-LAPD Homicide man Will Beall, whose novel “L.A. Rex” makes James Ellroy’s insane inventions look like dull non-fiction. The script has a few nice rat-a-tat bits– Gosling’s joke after he’s told that Stone’s Grace Faraday is teaching Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen how to be “sophisticated” may be the best example. But the demands of the plot — there being a need for the squad, recruiting the squad, putting the squad into action, repeating the word ‘squad’ as much as possible — mean that dialogue and character get the short end of the stick while exposition raises the long end high and clubs you with it mercilessly.

Shot with digital video, ‘Gangster Squad’ will no doubt impress people whose cinematic memories of noir go all the way back to ‘Sin City’; compared to the lush shadings of ‘Chinatown’ or ‘L.A. Confidential,’ the movie looks bright, rushed and cheap. Penn devours all the scenery he doesn’t kill people with as Coen, and watching the squad go through their shootouts — some in slow-motion, some not — doesn’t have narrative momentum as much as it just keeps the film going, endlessly, towards Cohen’s inevitable defeat. Somewhere inside ‘Gangster Squad,’ there’s a good idea — what happens when we sacrifice our moral codes to defeat forces without morality — but between Beall’s script, the sense of rushed re-write and Fleischer’s directorial emphasis on, quite literally, style over substance, we get a would-be crime epic that feels like a wax museum with a pulse.

— James Rocchi

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, ScreenCrush.com and the Toronto Star. He's also written for ifc.com, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.