Movie Review: Misfires and vintage noir in 'Gangster Squad'
In the annals of Hollywood history, there has been no studio more associated with the gangster genre than Warner Bros. Pictures.
From Robinson, Cagney and Bogart appearing in films like “The Public Enemy” and “Angels With Dirty Faces”, to De Niro and Scorcese’s “Goodfellas”, Warner Bros.’ reputation as the “gangster studio” is one well earned. With that reputation and the current resurgence of the gangster in modern pop culture – “The Godfather” never really went away, while “Boardwalk Empire” is a TV favorite – it seemed inconceivable that the star-studded “Gangster Squad” could be anything but a hit with fans and critics.
Based loosely on actual events, “Gangster Squad” stars Josh Brolin (“No Country For Old Men”, “MIB III”) as John O’Mara, the archetypal clean cop in a dirty city, in this case, 1949 Los Angeles. Decorated for his service in World War II and strictly by-the-book, O’Mara would like nothing more than to incarcerate Mickey Cohen, a real-life mob boss portrayed by Sean Penn (“Mystic River”) with scenery-chewing aplomb.
With Brolin bringing steely-eyed determination to his sequences, Penn uses every chance he gets to overact, making one think that the LAPD could have tracked him down just by following the sound of his yelling.
A war for the soul of L.A.
To wage the war “for the soul of Los Angeles” (in the words of Police Chief Bill Parker, played by Nick Nolte), battle lines will be drawn, and alliances made.
On the side of the angels is a crack squad of lawmen assembled by O’Mara, comprising of the expected assortment of personalities and specialties. The first ones to join O’Mara are the prerequisite rookie, Detective Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña, “Crash”, “Tower Heist”), the token Harlem cop who’s handy with a switchblade, Detective Coleman Harris (Anthomny Mackie, “The Hurt Locker”) and Giovanni Ribisi’s (“Lost in Translation”, “Avatar”) Detective Conwell Keeler, who adds his brains to everyone else’s brawn.
Adding his own brand of lethal menace is Robert Patrick (“T2: Judgment Day”, “Walk the Line”) as famed gangster hunter Max Kennard. Who would have thought that Patrick’s infamously-poker-faced visage would eventually serve him well as a protagonist?
The wild card of the group is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, “Drive”, “Young Hercules”), a laid-back young officer, and friend of O’Mara. Initially wary, Wooters first turns down O’Mara’s offer to join the team, reluctant to trust and occupied with his own efforts to take down Cohen.
It is not until a friend of Wooters is killed that he signs up for the titular “Squad”. Of course, further complications arise in the lovely form of Emma Stone as Cohen’s etiquette coach, Grace Faraday, whom Wooters is quickly infatuated with.
Stylized violence, character disconnect
Given the proper frame of mind, there’s a lot of fun to be had with “Gangster Squad”, a loud, brash, colorful explosion of a period romp interspersed with stylized violence, high production values and a cast to die for.
Unfortunately, despite the impressive body count, no shortage of fisticuffs, conflagrations and heroics, “Gangster Squad” never really makes us connect with its characters enough to actually care about them.
With Brolin stoic and Penn manic, and the rest of the team made up of caricatures, the closest we have to a relatable character here is Gosling’s Wooters, but the young performer shows none of the presence nor gravitas he’s become known for, coming across here like a male Kristen Stewart.
Now, the one facial expression-monotone combo was used by Gosling to excellent effect in the downright brilliant “Drive”, but it just seems out of place for Wooters’ cynical – yet smooth – charmer.
Stone acts impeccably, looks gorgeous
The object of Wooters’ affection, Faraday, as played by Emma Stone, acts circles around Gosling, bringing just the right amount of intelligent standoffishness to her part while looking incredibly, impossibly gorgeous.
As a fan of Gosling and Stone’s pairing in “Crazy Stupid Love”, my frustrations with their lack of chemistry here would have been assuaged if the movie around them tried to be something more than mere escapist entertainment.
Plain and simple, this isn’t the film we were sold in the months of publicity leading up to release. Marketing “Gangster Squad” to moviegoers as a serious crime picture along the lines of De Palma’s “The Untouchables” was a mistake.
The final film lacks the weight or ambition to elevate it to such esteemed company. This is the gangster picture as one of the lesser summer comic book action movies: something to keep you distracted for a couple of hours, but one that you’ll have trouble remembering a few months down the line.
Given the tone and treatment, maybe they could have gone for a “Dick Tracy” remake instead. – KDM, GMA News
Gangster Squad is currently screening nationwide and has been rated “R-13 Without Cuts.”
All photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Mikhail Lecaros is a professional magazine editor and freelance writer. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.