The Gangster Crime Flick is a sub-genre of movies that I am very much a fan of, and it always excites me when a new entry into this canon of movies comes out, particularly in this day and age, as you certainly don’t get as many as you used. And you certainly don’t get them like you used to either. Some of the greats that come to mind are the obvious ones; The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Untouchables (which this film owes a lot to) and Chinatown. In recent cinema, the most notable examples of great crime flicks that could stand shoulder to shoulder with these classics are but only two, in my opinion. These are Road to Perdition and The Departed. Both rather deadly serious crime movies, but exceptional films none the less. Gangster Squad is very different in style, and its trailers promised a very stylish, old-fashioned crime flick with a comic-book aesthetic. And while it does achieve that, it is at a price. And that is the price of a good script, a consistent style and decent characters.
Set in 1949 Los Angeles, four years after the end of the war, the city of LA has found itself embroiled in a war on its own turf; the war against organized crime. At the head of the crime underworld of LA sits Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a Mob Boss from the East who has come to the sunny shores of LA to exploit a gap in the market as it were to become one of the most feared men in the country. After taking on a group of Cohen’s thugs, Police Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is especially selected by Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) to gather together a group of individuals to form a covert group outside of the law to take down Cohen’s operations, despite the objections of his heavily pregnant wife. With a team consisting of the smooth Jerry (Ryan Gosling), tech-whiz Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), street detective Harris (Anthony Mackie), legendary gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his partner Ramirez (Michael Pena), O’Mara wages war on Cohen’s kingdom of crime in L.A. The badges are off, the Gangster Squad is out to reclaim Los Angeles, by any means necessary. All the while, Jerry flirts with danger by becoming involved with Cohen’s etiquette coach and girlfriend Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
From the number of names dropped in that synopsis, it is not hard to see that this is a star-studded affair in the classic Hollywood mold. And most certainly, the film does uphold a classic Hollywood aesthetic, thanks mainly to the production designers and art departments efforts to bring 1940’s L.A. to vibrant life. However, the script and the direction fail to make use of its colourful cast, what with each cast member seemingly confused about what kind of film they are in. Many of the minor characters (Patrick, Pena and Mackie) seem to believe that they are in a gangster spoof, Brolin thinks he’s actually in The Untouchables, while Sean Penn appears to be in a pantomime. Penn may be having fun with his performance, but the angry speeches and scenery munching become far too much after two minutes in his company. It is a ridiculous performance, not menacing. The only actor who appears to be in tune for the most part is Mr. Gosling. He is charming, witty, matches the 40’s style to a tee, and also slips into bad-ass mode with confident ease. Unfortunately the script does not devote enough time to his relationship with Emma Stone; a chemistry that has proven to work in Crazy Stupid Love is not exploited enough here, with their scenes together feeling half-baked and lacking in that certain spark.
Director Ruben Fleischer, the man behind the brilliant Zombieland and the so-so 30 Minutes Or Less, is starting to worryingly look like a one-hit wonder of a director. Fleischer seems to be aiming for a comic-book style gangster spoof, but its a style that is frustratingly empty, it merely perplexes rather than entertains. There are a couple of action sequences that impress; a shoot-out outside a club which results in an awesome moment of bad-assery from Gosling, and a car chase that is nicely executed, even if the Squad’s plan is horribly so. Otherwise though, Fleischer just seems to have a fetish with the slow-motion button and pointless freeze-frames. He seems to have the mind-set that if it looks cool, then he should probably do it, with very little regard for artistic and narrative merit.
Not all the blame should be placed on Fleischer though. The style he employs at least tries to give the film a unique feel, the script however, is widely uneven and laughable pathetic. Every character seems to speak in extended metaphors to the point where it becomes ridiculous. Why this supplies entertainment throughout the running time, it is only because they are incredibly cringe-worthy, particularly when you can almost feel part of the actors soul die when they deliver certain lines. Will Beall’s script does have some rather nice zingers within it, but most of those were in the vast superior trailers. His script flirts with spoof-esque dialogue and set-pieces (the prison break) to moments of heavy-handed drama, which put simply does not match up or balance out with the more ridiculous dialogue (Penn seemingly quotes Fat Tony at one point), ultimately accumulating in a scatter-shot script which is only emphasized by the un-assured direction. This film, in terms of its script, certainly does not bode well for 2015’s Justice League, which also sports a Will Beall script.
Do not get me wrong, watching Gangster Squad was a quite an entertaining cinema experience, if only because the script is incredibly easy to laugh at. Some of the performances make it out relatively unscathed; Brolin is a solid leading man, and it is rather fulfilling watching him punch the shit out of Sean Penn in the films over-blown finale. And sequences do stand out; the Chinatown sequence (shot in replacement of a cinema shoot-out following the Aurora shootings earlier last year) does generate tension and a good level of threat, which is rather ironic considering it was the last thing shot for the film. Perhaps if more time had been given to establishing a tone in the script’s conception, we may have had a wonderfully classic Gangster movie that we could call a modern Untouchables. But as it stands, we have a cliched, inferior shadow of classic Film Noir’s of Hollywood past.