Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Lurid. That’s Gangster Squad in one word. Full of violence as stylized as it is gratuitous, characters so undercooked that even a cast full of fine actors can’t breach their inherent artificiality, and dialogue that sounds like a twelve-year-old’s idea of classic Hollywood sophistication, the film has shockingly little to recommend it. Sure, it contains some cool looking shots, but that can hardly make up for the fact that it’s a failure on pretty much every level.
Set in 1949 in a Los Angeles ruled by gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), Gangster Squad follows the efforts of one of the LAPD’s only clean cops, John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) as he’s tasked with breaking up Cohen’s organization. Since Cohen has much of the police force on his payroll, O’Mara’s job – commissioned by Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) – is off the record, a secret mission to smash up the various parts of Cohen’s empire and bring the gangster back down to earth. O’Mara assembles the eponymous team, which includes Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). The team also comes to include Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), whose previous reluctance to join is obliterated after he witnesses a massacre carried out by Cohen’s goons. He’s further motivated, in part, by his affair with Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace (Emma Stone).
Despite not being all that good at what they’re doing – the squad attempts to rob a casino that turns out to be full of dirty cops, they luck out in a car chase/gun fight thanks to a well-timed grenade, they get lured into a trap that results in what appears to be a number of civilian casualties, and they leave behind evidence that allows Cohen to put the pieces together and discover who they are – they do manage to do enough damage to Cohen’s operations that he’s drawn into an out-and-out war with them. In a finale reminiscent of The Raid, the cops and the gangsters tear up a hotel with results that hit pretty much every single shoot out cliché known to film.
There is a lot wrong with Gangster Squad, but its worst offense is probably its thematic treatment of violence and vigilantism. The film is ostensibly about good guys using bad guy methods to do something good and, despite a limp acknowledgement that perhaps ends don’t justify means so much as they’re tainted by them, nothing about the characterization of the members of the squad suggests that we’re meant to see them as anything other than heroic. The brief argument that the work the squad is doing is turning its members into men they shouldn’t want to be is quickly made and then just as quickly forgotten, uttered by the member coded as the “other,” the nerdy guy working alongside the manliest of men, the one who dies easily in comparison to the others, his intellectualism out of place in a world reduced down to its most basic elements. Meanwhile, the actions of the squad don’t curtail gang violence so much as it escalates it because, until Cohen figures out that he’s dealing with cops, he thinks that the squad is working on behalf of a rival gangster. Up until the gangster squad gets involved, the only people Cohen is killing are the members of his own organization who have somehow failed him and other gangsters; after the squad gets involved, innocent blood starts getting shed left, right and centre thanks to their blunt force methods. But, hey, at least director Ruben Fleischer gets to do a lot of slow motion/fast motion action – because it’s not like that’s played out by now or anything.
There are a lot of good actors in Gangster Squad - they’ve been good before and, I’m certain, they’ll be good again, but all their talent is utterly wasted in this movie. The characters are so thin and so unreal that it renders the story weightless – the stakes aren’t just low here, they’re non-existent because the film has such a tenuous connection to reality. Gangster Squad is basically a bunch of good actors playing dress up, killing time between decent projects. It’s a film best forgotten.