Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Mireille Enos, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick, Jon Polito, Derek Mears, Frank Grillo, Holt McCallany, Brandon Molale, Ambyr Childers, Jim Fitzpatrick, De’aundre Bonds, Mac Brandt, Troy Garity, Jack McGee, Robert Sisko. Written by Will Beall, from the book by Paul Lieberman.
2013’s first big disappointment comes in the form of Gangster Squad, a high-profile, high-energy, overdone and undercooked version of the purportedly true story of a renegade police squad taking on Mickey Cohen in 1940s Los Angeles. With reshoots following last summer’s cinema shooting in Colorado (the film originally featured a cinema shootout scene, which has been replaced with a Chinatown version – ironically, this is the film’s best sequence) resulting in a January release date (typically a dumping ground for studios), expectations shouldn’t have been high.
Mine certainly weren’t, but Ruben Fleischer’s film managed to fall well beneath them. This kind of stuff is right up my alley, but the director doesn’t seem to understand the appeal of the material; instead of a serious drama like L.A. Confidential, a spoof a la Dick Tracy, or an Untouchables-like blockbuster, Gangster Squad is an utterly conventional action flick that couldn’t be less interested in its genre or true-story premise despite all the money that we can see up on the screen in the sets and costumes; despite the setting, this thing feels more like last year’s Total Recall remake.
The template here was clearly Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables: superstar cast, large-scale action setpieces, and a plot involving a renegade police force tackling organized crime. But the execution is all over the map: dark and serious one minute, over-the-top action the next, then goofy comedic relief, sultry romance, all dialed up to 11. That sounds pretty good, but the experience of watching the film is shockingly dull.
The film’s opening scene sets the table for what could be a vicious and brutal ride. Sean Penn’s gangster Mickey Cohen gleefully disposes of a member of a rival Chicago clan by tying him to two cars and ripping him apart, which we witness in full, gruesome detail. That’s the last scene of its kind in the film, though there’s no shortage of blood on display during the rest of it.
It’s all cops vs. robbers from there. Because most of the cops in L.A. are on Cohen’s payroll, the chief of police (Nick Nolte) commissions Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to form a secret team to cripple Cohen’s operation using less-than-legal methods. O’Mara (and his pregnant wife Connie, played by Mireille Enos) recruits playboy Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), brainy Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), cowboy Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his sidekick Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), and (anachronistic) token black Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) to take out the crime kingpin.
Why do they care? Why should we? Cohen’s the baddest bad guy, and that’s that. There’s just not enough motivation for the gangster squad to operate in the fashion they do, or for us to actively be rooting for them; every scene with Cohen goes nowhere talking about the Chicago syndicate and mafia politics. Compare to The Untouchables, where a sweet little girl is killed in a bombing in the opening scene – all the motivation we need for the rest of the film to work.
Character development is non-existent; Brolin’s O’Mara is one of the most thinly-sketched leads you’ll ever see in a feature film. Gosling and Penn fare slightly better; Emma Stone, as the femme fatale who comes between them, looks Rita Hayworth-ravishing but feels completely out of place in this setting.
Because this is an action movie, the body count is in the hundreds. But because it must stay at least somewhat faithful to the true story behind Mickey Cohen, it cannot end in the way the screenplay (by Will Beall, from the book by Paul Lieberman) is headed towards. This leads to a ridiculous climactic sequence where the gangster squad kills dozens of people in order to serve Cohen with a subpoena.
I enjoyed both of Fleischer’s previous films, the comedies Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less. Gangster Squad is his attempt to have his cake and eat it too: it’s half-serious, half-spoofy, entirely half-hearted mess that attempts to throw what it can at the audience and see what sticks. The answer: none of it. While watchable, this is an instantly-forgettable waste of both an enormous amount of talent and your precious time.