Gangster Squad

There is a lot of testosterone-fuelled action in Gangster Squad but it all feels like a shoddy caricature of some classic gangster flicks of yesteryears.

If ignorance is bliss, director Ruben Fleischer must be a very happy man. Known for crude action-comedies like Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less, the director gives sceptics a field day by trying his hand at a period-piece that in theory had the potential to be a powerful crime-caper. But as it turns out, all Fleisher manages is a shoddy caricature of some classic gangster flicks of yesteryears.

The backdrop is 1949 Los Angeles, and Dion Beebe’s cinematography is vivid with chrome trimmed vintage cars, jazzy nightlife obsessions and almost every other detail you would expect in a film noir setting. Ironically, in this post WWII era, the City of Angels is anything but angelic as Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) sets out to become the most notorious criminal mastermind in California. From gambling and narcotics to extortion and police bribery, Cohen is on a ruthless rise to power and there is not a damned thing anyone can do about it. Well almost. Played by Josh Brolin, LAPD Sargent John O’Mara is a hot-headed honest cop (think Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential) who believes court order arrest warrants are useless when issued by judges on Cohen’s payroll. Summoned by no-nonsense LAPD Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), O’Mara is tasked with putting together the titular hit squad to wage war on Cohen and his criminal enterprise and reclaim the soul of Los Angeles. Like six rounds to a pea-shooter, the squad comprises of badge less detectives O’Mara, smooth talking playboy Wooters (Ryan Gosling), knife-throwing Harris (Anthony Mackie), recon expert Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), sharp shooter Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his protégé Ramirez (Michael Peña).

As an analogy, some viewers might even think this squad is one man short of what would have sounded like The Magnificent Seven; then again, that would be insignificant with everything else this film falls short of. Besides Beebe’s stylized cinematography and a few well-framed car chase sequences, the only other aspect worth considering is the ensemble star cast. Normally this would be a good thing. Loosely adapting from Paul Liebermann’s L. A. Times chronicle— Tales From the Gangster Squad—Will Beall is a questionable choice especially since this is his first cinema screenplay. To say the least, the effect of this fundamentally flawed screenplay is disastrous on many top actors in this movie and even embarrassing considering some of them are Oscar material from previous films. Double Oscar-winner Penn, for example, is hideous as a boxer-turned-criminal and even manages a faint flash of brilliance in a couple of scenes, but is then reduced to a comical villain easily comparable to Al Pacino’s ‘Big Boy’ Caprice in Dick Tracy. But in also claiming the story to be based on actual events, Beall has carelessly overlooked vital plot aids like Cohen’s real life association with Al Capone and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Gosling’s Jerry Wooters has some likeability if you don’t mind his jarring dialogues. The problem arises when his character becomes romantically involved with Cohen’s moll and eye-candy Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). On her own, Stone does her part well when we first see her as the sumptuous ‘lady in red’ but together with Gosling you would expect some more of that on-screen chemistry last seen in Crazy, Stupid, Love. The rest are mere paperweights that could have benefited from a more experienced director. Almost every other character appears to have a story to tell, but is somehow suppressed in the narrative: the most annoying being Wooters and O’Mara’s history together as war veterans.

For a noir period saga, Gangster Squad is a crime-drama that tries to match up to the look and feel of L.A. Confidential or Mullholland Falls or other films of similar ilk. There is a lot of testosterone-fuelled action with focus given to tommy guns rattling in slow-motion and tooth extracting fistfights, but it all feels done before. In their inadvertent desperation to make a classic gangster movie, Beall and Fleischer have failed to place themselves in the viewer’s seat first. The audience, however, has seen this movie before and it will be forever known as The Untouchables.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.