Film Review – Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad (MA)

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone

Three stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Like it’s tommy gun-toting characters, Gangster Squad flirts with the fine line between good and bad, right and wrong. While it is a moral struggle that plagues the group of cops turned vigilantes, it is the confused tone that conflicts the film. After making his mark with the screwball-horror genre hybrid Zombieland (2009), director Ruben Fleischer attempts to mix flavours yet again – the light with the dark – but finds it a greater challenge when not dealing with flesh-eating ghouls. Trying to find a place for laughs in a 1940s “true crime” setting seems to be something that baffles him. His modern sense of humour struggles to exist in the noir context, coming off as an oppressed entity, battling to be relevant amidst the spray of bullets and blood and lush detail of the time recreated.

When it seems the law can no longer touch violent and powerful mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who has many politicians and most of the LAPD on his payroll, Sgt John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) forms a secret unit of clean cops to cause a rift in the crime lord’s plans to corrupt the entire country. With his concerned and pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos), O’Mara hand picks a collection of character cliches: ladies man Sgt Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), brainiac Det. Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), sharp shooter Det. Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the token minority group representatives who are given the least amount of screen time and development (Michael Pena and Anthony Mackie). You get the idea. Added drama is attempted with Wooters falling head over heals for Cohen’s girl Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), a delicate, one-time Hollywood hopeful that became trapped in her boyfriend’s lifestyle. Oh, and the brief, fleeting moment in which Keeler questions the group’s actions and methods when the line between the good guys and bad guys becomes blurred.

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Gangster Squad sets a tone with some deliciously delightful era inspired puns, indicating a breezy recreation of those old Hollywood gangster films but then takes a swerve with graphic violence and melodramatic delivery of some very average dialogue. The glaring inconsistencies become a distraction. Does this want to grab us by the throat with the detailed attacks or make us laugh with Three Stooges-like botched attempts to bring justice? This is the kind of confused film that tries to get our pulses racing with a shoot out sequence only to halt it midway for a gag. It wants to have its cake and eat it too, but does not have the knowledge or expertise of when to serve it.

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If the cast had anything to work with, they might have looked like they were enjoying themselves a little more. Gosling appears most at ease; his gentlemanly mannerism will melt hearts (every time he enters a room or chats to a woman, he puts his hat over his heart. Swoon.) Brolin is supposed to be carrying the story but fails to impress and Penn hams it up in the most over-the-top, cartoonish performance in the film. But Stone, who usually pops with her effervescent screen presence, is positively dull in her underwritten, after-thought role. Fleischer must have had the easiest time directing her: “Stand there. Look pretty.”

Seemingly stifled with the task of recreating the historical look, Fleischer offers little personality to the project. Everything looks great, inauthentic but passable to anyone who is not up on 1940s fashion and design and the action is acceptable. But there is little else to put this above the pack. Gangster Squad is slick but hollow entertainment, that will likely encourage you to dig around to uncover some of cinema’s more golden entries in the genre.

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