MOVIE REVIEW: Gangster Squad



I harp all the time that movies are fiction and make believe, but some movies go a little to far with it from time to time.  As a minor cinema aficionado, one thing that disappoints me is a movie that pretends to be something that it just can't deliver.  I'm not talking about fun and unexpected twists, turns, and surprises.  I'm talking about a movie that sells itself to be a certain genre or an homage to a certain style and then goes too far off course.

On paper and on the surface, Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad is a nice piece of movie construction.  It stands to portray an ultra-cool throwback to good guy cops and bad guy gangsters film noir of the 1940's and 1950's.  The film and its characters are decked out in flashy threads, tailored suits, and slick fedoras.  Period-era cars and details are bathed in neon light and the glow of Old Hollywood is even brighter.  Add a cast, with captivating presences like Sean Penn and Josh Brolin and pretty faces like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and you've got a hit right?  Not by a long shot.

On looks alone, Gangster Squad gets that part right.  The cast is certainly appealing.  The production detail is stellar and spared no expense, but then its flaws of being a pretender show up.  Gangster Squad suffers from a Hollywood system with no new or original ideas to back up the flashy exterior.  It poorly attempts to combine the best elements from other gangster movies together and very few things stick.

Gangster Squad attempts to tell you that it's inspired by a true story.  Yes, Mickey Cohen really existed and the sunny city of Los Angeles, California was commonly plagued by mob corruption and violence, combated for 39 years by its longest tenured chief of police, Bill Parker.  That's pretty much where the truth ends.  The movie takes great steps to pump history up to suitable Hollywood bombastic fashion.

In this movie, Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) enlists decorated World War II veteran and one his leading cops that's not on the mob take, Sergeant John O'Meara (Brolin), to put together an off-the-books team to take down emigrated Chicago mobster Mickey Cohen's (Penn) empire using whatever means necessary.  O'Meara first turns to his closest cop friend, Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a swinger of a guy who doesn't mind the crooked decadence around him.  Naturally, he's going to say no at first, but will later decide to join the team and arrive at an ideally helpful moment of need.  After Jerry, O'Meara collects his tokens and brings together a black guy (The Hurt Locker's Anthony Mackie), a nerd (Saving Private Ryan's Giovanni Ribisi), an old gunslinger (Robert "T-1000" Patrick) and his Mexican sidekick (End of Watch's Michael Pena).  Six against hundreds?  Piece of cake!

Meanwhile, on the dark side of the tracks, Mickey Cohen rules with an iron first and lust for blood.  With two heavy-hitting assassins and word-less bodyguards at his side (Fight Club's Holt McCallany and Barbershop's Troy Garity), Mickey is shunning his bosses in Chicago with the goal of making Los Angeles all his own.  The top money-making scheme in his plans is controlling the financial wire service of the whole west coast that funnels through L.A.  The fetching Grace Faraday (Stone) is the aspiring actress who got involved with the wrong crowd upon coming to Hollywood and now acts as Cohen's escort and social etiquette teacher.

Let's rattle off the laundry list of screw-ups.  We'll start with the acting.  Sean Penn thinks he's Edward G. Robinson, but forgets that Robinson had charisma.  "Over-the-top" is an understatement.  He is a dance number and two volume levels away from Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice from Dick Tracy. 

Josh Brolin thinks he's a tough guy with a message, but then doesn't have much to say that doesn't start with his fists and end with horrible dialogue.  Ryan Gosling keeps thinking he's Marlon Brando and forgets to go through puberty, take the marbles out of his mouth, and act like he's having fun.  Emma Stone looks the part of a dame worth saving, but then doesn't act like a dame worth saving.  None of the characters are compelling and their archetypes have been done so much better by lesser actors in better movies.  All combined, it's a waste of talent and potential.

After the cast, the movie's an odd mix of mismatched parts.  Transformers trilogy composer Steve Jablonsky thinks he can mimic Ennio Morricone'sThe Untouchables's musical ambiance, but fails miserably with a score that's too modern to fit a throwback.  Where's the great period music that made 1997's Oscar winner L.A. Confidential rock solid?  They saved it for one song in the credits.  Director Ruben Fleischer thinks he's still making Zombieland and derails the narrative train with incidents of dumb, senseless, and graphic violence that serves very little purpose other than to turn your head and doesn't fit the throwback era.  Screenwriter Will Beall badly weaves all these details into stock scenes we've seen in every cop or gangster movie (a car chase, a jail break, a casino bust, cops practicing, cops bonding, and a predictable and cheesy climactic shoot-out) that just happen to have a fedora and Zippo lighter instead of a leather jacket and cell phone (though Army walkie-talkies substitute nicely).  I'm scared for Warner Brothers's future because Beall has been tapped by the higher-ups to reboot Lethal Weapon and write the eventual Justice League superhero team-up film.

In total, Gangster Squad is quite a disappointment, especially for a movie that made my Top 13 movies to see in 2013.  I'm a big fan of that era of movies and era of American history and this movie is such a weak attempt and missed opportunity.  I'll grant that it's got style to spare and killer looks, but the moving parts just don't back the polish and detail on the outside.  If you want the real thing, go find some old film noir from back in the day.  Start with this list and then this one.  If you want a better throwback, look no further than the aforementioned L.A. Confidential.  That's how you do a modern noir throwback with style, substance, and originality.  Gangster Squad doesn't deserve to be mentioned in that company.

LESSON #1: EVERYONE WEARS A BADGE-- This is the one serious lesson from the movie and it's a clunker of thematic line delivered towards the beginning of the film by Josh Brolin (and repeated again at the end).  Apparently, according to his logic, we all wear badges that suit our disposition, conscience, and/or role in society.  Isn't that cute?  We've all been reduced to being singularly good Girl Scouts.

LESSON #2: IN TODAY'S DAY AND AGE, EVEN IF THE MOVIE IS SET BEFORE THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, YOU HAVE TO HAVE EQUAL DEMOGRAPHIC AND CLICHE REPRESENTATION WHEN PUTTING TOGETHER A TEAM OF HEROES-- Hooray token black guy!  Hooray token Latino!  Hooray required "red shirt" nerd who's fate is sealed!  Hooray prerequisite gruff older guy that of course dies to make a young guy live!  Enjoy cashing your easy paychecks for hack work, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, and Robert Patrick.  You're all better than this, but, clearly, baby needs a new pair of shoes.

LESSON #3: DON'T FALL FOR THE MAIN VILLAIN'S GIRLFRIEND-- I know Emma Stone looks great with a lit cigarette and tempting lipstick, but you don't go after the bad guy's girl.  That's just asking for trouble, especially if that bad guy likes to drum up odd and torturous ways to kill his victims.  Buy her drink and wink from afar.  Does it occur to you that you'll just make things worse for her too?  Slow play your hand, Ryan Gosling.  It worked with the same girl in Crazy Stupid Love.  It's going to work again.  Give it time.  Wait for the bad guy to be apprehended and out of the picture, then you can take your shirt off.

LESSON #4: IF YOU HAVE AN ODD FACIAL FEATURE, YOU GET TO BE A BAD GUY.  IF YOU ARE IMPECCABLY HANDSOME, YOU GET TO BE A GOOD GUY-- This bit of Hollywood casting combined with cheesy makeup results in selection procedures worse that P.E. teacher picking teams for kickball or dodgeball back in the day.  Sean Penn is the absolute oldest looking 52-year-old man I've even seen (scarier even more, he was likely only 50 when he made the film).  His henchman have false eyes, bad haircuts, and even worse facial hair.  Naturally, those are required looks for movie bad guys.  Meanwhile, our heroes are clean-cut, square-jawed Adonises that look like Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin.

LESSON #5: ONCE AGAIN, ALL MOVIE VILLAINS NEED TO PUT SOME TIME IN ON THE SHOOTING RANGE-- I dished out this movie lesson on the Hong Kong classic The Killer and it strikes again.  Frequently armed with fully automatic Thompson sub-machine guns, the movie bad guys (with their aforementioned beauty flaws) can't hit a damn thing other than whatever would look real cool getting blown to bits my movie theater stunt explosions.  What's worse than The Killer where distance and pistols are primarily involved, is that in Gangster Squad we've got guys unloading 30+ rounds at near point blank range can't even graze a guy.  Yet, naturally, the good guys are crack shots and never run out of ammo.