Gangster Squad has lots to offer in terms of eye candy, and that’s about it, so if you like your gangster films high on style and short on substance or character depth, you’re in for a treat. Otherwise, avoid this watered-down mish-mash of The Untouchables, L.A. Confidential, and Dick Tracy, and just watch those movies again, instead. You’ll probably enjoy that tommy-gun fest a whole lot more.
Los Angeles, 1949. Brooklyn-born boxer-turned-mob-boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has set out to establish himself as the only criminal power in the city, wantonly killing other mobsters from back east to take their holdings and bribing cops and public officials to keep them out of his well-slicked hair. But L.A. Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) has had enough of corrupt judges and D.A.s who won’t prosecute, and so he recruits Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a WWII veteran turned cop who can’t quite settle into peacetime and looks for fights in an effort to bring order to his world, to put together an “off the books” squad to take down Mickey’s operation.
O’Mara’s gang of would-be untouchables includes Ofcs. Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a beat cop who wants to clean out the heroin decimating the poor families on his streets; Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), a quick-draw gunslinger lawman born of the Wild West crimefighter ilk, and his Mexican-born eager beaver partner, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña); Conway Keeler, a brainy police engineer who wants a cleaner L.A. to raise his family in; and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a jaded cop more interested in chasing skirts than getting shot at by gangsters. Though they get off to a rocky start, soon enough they’re making trouble for Mickey’s criminal ambitions, as well as making in-roads into his personal life thanks to Wooters charming his way into the bed of Mickey’s girl Friday, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). You just know the town ain’t big enough for all of them, so bullets fly, bodies pile up, and the cast all look smashingly sharp walking through it all.
Recent years have seen a renaissance of sorts in terms of gangster films, particularly those inspired by real-life figures. 2012’s Lawless and 2009’s Public Enemies are good examples of trenchcoat-and-tommy-gun films that are built around realism and characterization, rather than style and visual flair. In comparison to those much stronger films, Gangster Squad is shallow, underwritten fare that has more in common with Brian De Palma’s 1987 stylish remake of The Untouchables. But even that film, with its stars sporting Armani suits and Robert De Niro chewing scenery like few other times in his illustrious career, had in its favor a script by David Mamet and an unforgettable, Oscar-winning performance from Sean Connery to lend the whole film weight and credibility. Yes, its other characters were little more than stock archetypes, but Connery’s Malone and De Niro’s Al Capone made you care about what happened to the rest of the ensemble. It was riveting even though it was shallow, and it’s still enjoyable to this day, especially if you’re a fan of the genre.
Even with Sean Penn hamming it up in full Jimmy Durante mode in his every scene, Gangster Squad has no such advantages working in its favor. Its script is the hard-boiled stuff of trashy pulp magazines of the time (think Sin City without the irony), and its cast, aside from Brolin, who could look perfectly in his element in a Mentos Gum commercial, all look and sound like they signed on just to put on the costumes and wave guns around. Gosling and Stone look cute together once again (this is their first re-teaming since Crazy, Stupid Love), but their scenes are few — if you’ve seen the commercials for the movie, you’ve seen the best they have to offer here.
All in all, the film is right at home here in January, in the scrap pile of studio films not fit for release in the summer or holiday seasons. Save your money and grab this one from the rental machine when it comes out, if you must. It’s not worth your box office dollars right now.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn. Directed by Ruben Fleischer.
Running Time: 113 minutes
Rated R for strong violence and language.