There was a time when I was looking forward to “Gangster Squad”…and that time was September 2012. The movie was originally supposed to come out then, until the tragic Aurora theatre shooting occurred. This forced the filmmakers to reshoot and change a scene that involved the gangsters shooting up a movie theatre, an understandable decision, and then push the movie back to January. I thought this might hurt the movie, yet there are so many other problems going on here that perhaps the studio should have extended their reshoot schedule.
In 1940s Los Angeles, gangster Mickey Cohen has risen in the criminal underworld and tightened his grip over the city. With Cohen’s empire expanding every day, the LAPD has been at a loss in their side of the war. To counteract this, they have assigned Sgt. John O’Mara to put together an off-the-record strike team of cops to engage in sabotage and flat-out battle with Cohen’s thugs.
The core concept at the center of “Gangster Squad” is irresistible, prime material for a pulpy cops-and-robbers yarn with a sense of fun. The problem is that “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer can’t quite find the right balance in tone. There are flashes where Fleischer lets it rip and embraces the pulp, especially in the final shootout where both sides of the law engage guns blazing. A duel sequence between O’Mara and Cohen demonstrates the director’s skill with slow motion, and the visuals contain the deep contrast and flashy colors of an atmospheric comic book.
Too often though, Fleischer forgets to have fun, and treats the material with hard straight face. “Gangster Squad” frequently shows its violent side, yet it frequently treads on the side of grim and unpleasant rather than lively and colorful. The reason why the famous bat scene in “The Untouchables” (a movie that “Squad” is definitely using as a blueprint) works is because it is a shock to the audience. When your movie lingers on the details of a man getting a drill to the face or another having acid poured on his “lower parts,” it loses its effect on the viewer and numbs them to the glumness of it all. The overall result feels like an attempt to add gravitas to thin material that does not warrant it.
Screenwriter Will Beall wants to capture the feel of the classic ‘40s gangster pictures, but his horrendous ear for dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. Characters talk in cornball catchphrases half the time that would have felt too cheesy even 70 years ago, and during an action scene it is hard not to chortle at Cohen’s laughable exclamation, “Here comes Santy Claus!” It is a shame really, since Sean Penn, who plays Cohen, is the only actor here who seems to have understand the kind of movie this could have been. His larger than life and exaggerated performance breathes life into otherwise flat scenes, even as he has to wrestle with Beall’s clichéd words and some unnecessary facial makeup right out of “Dick Tracy.”
The rest of the actors are not as fun to watch, although they hold their own. Josh Brolin (O’Mara), Ryan Gosling, and Giovanni Ribisi are the only ones in the titular squad that get significant development, and the rest of the characters rely on the fact that they are played by recognizable faces like Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, and Robert Patrick. While the actors are fine in their roles, we don’t get to see them interact enough as a team with the exceptions of Brolin and Gosling. Likewise, Gosling’s relationship with Emma Stone, playing Cohen’s girl Grace, is pushed aside, and Stone is wasted in this slight role.
This sounds like I really hate “Gangster Squad,” but that wouldn’t be true. It held my interest for the most part and had enough entertaining pieces to keep me going. The movie is more one full of disappoint than outright badness (barring that terrible dialogue). With a couple rewrites and some fine-tuning on the tone, it could have been something more than the sum of its parts. The talent is there, it is just not being used to the fullest extent. Unfortunately, between this and his last movie, “30 Minutes or Less,” it looks as if the instant goodwill and promise that Ruben Fleischer displayed in “Zombieland” has dried up and left him a one-hit wonder.