Movie Review: Gangster Squad
By Matthew Huntley
January 21, 2013

Sean's been reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

If a conventional crime drama got together with a conventional superhero movie, their child would be Gangster Squad. That sounds silly, I know, but the movie is every bit as frivolous. It’s a mix of shiny, pretty pictures and stock movie characters, all combined into one generic plot. The filmmakers are so pre-occupied with recreating the movie’s era and imitating the plethora of other films that inspired it, they forgot to tell an original, let alone interesting, story. They also forgot that things like costumes, sets and special effects are supposed to serve the narrative, not act as the narrative. In fact, if you take away all the superficial qualities of Gangster Squad, there isn’t much left, and that’s a problem.

The movie might have made for an adequate action picture if that’s all it strived to be. Maybe then the filmmakers could have harnessed their energy into some memorable sequences that put us on the edge of our seats. But director Ruben Fleischer takes the underlying material too seriously and seemed to think he was making something important. Unfortunately, with such a watered down plot and thinly developed characters, we don’t feel the same way, even if it is “inspired by a true story.”

It’s 1949 and the Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) believes it’s his “manifest destiny” to own and run Los Angeles, with aspirations to make L.A. a central hub for illegal gambling, among other criminal activities. The film is bookended by a dull and uninspired narration by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who tells us men are measured by various symbols, and in the case of Cohen, his fists. Before Cohen established his crime ring, he was a boxer and would you believe Gangster Squad actually boils down to a fist fight that finds Cohen asking O’Mara if he “wants to dance”? And that a swarm of passersby stand around and witness the event? Even if this happened in real life, and I sincerely doubt it did, I wouldn’t believe it.

O’Mara is the film’s central hero, a straight-as-an-arrow police officer dedicated to serving the public interest. Moralistic and incorruptible, he’s the Captain America, if you will, of L.A. and is handpicked by Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to bring down Cohen’s entire operation. Parker doesn’t want O’Mara to simply arrest Cohen, but to crush him. Despite the reservations of his pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), O’Mara jumps at the chance, but says he’ll need men to carry out such a feat. This is, of course, an unofficial assignment and meant to be clandestine, but O’Mara and his team are pretty much licensed to do whatever they want.

While sifting through various cops’ profiles to see who should make the cut, it’s Connie of all people who tells O’Mara he’ll need more than just the standard choir boys. Even she knows this type of outfit requires a rough and tough set of cops with experience and brawn. Here’s where the superhero aspect of Gangster Squad”comes into play, as each man Connie singles out has a unique ability, kind of like the Avengers, only laughable.

Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is the stealthy, resilient one of the group, as well as the charming ladies’ man. Not only does he manage to sneak into Cohen’s lush Beverly Hills mansion to install a surveillance wire, he also woos Cohen’s image girl, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), right under the mobster’s nose. Within an hour of meeting her at a swanky L.A. night club, Jerry beds her and suddenly they’re in love. But I suppose it wouldn’t be a conventional crime drama without a sexy dame to thicken the plot. We know she’ll be put in danger and in need of rescuing at some point. Maybe it’s also a rule that if Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone appear in a movie together, their characters have to sleep with each other, although it was a lot more natural in Crazy Stupid Love.

Gosling can be a very good actor when he’s in the right role, but here he’s obnoxious and his qualities feel a bit anachronistic. He speaks with a high-pitched voice that makes him sound like a baby, which got on my nerves, and his bright, blonde haircut doesn’t seem right for the time. He seemed to be doing an impersonation of a 1940s cop than actually embodying one.

The other squad members include Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), the token black guy who has a gift for throwing knives; Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the eldest of the bunch who’s also the best and quickest sharpshooter in town, and if you don’t think the movie will give him a crucial scene where he has to fire a very important shot at just the right time, think again; Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), who can drive a car like a professional stuntman; and Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), the egghead with glasses who can do everything from launch toy rockets to tap into phone lines. There comes a point in the movie when Keeler tells O’Mara the line between them and the criminals is getting too thin, and I thought the movie might take an interesting turn and actually be about something, like morality, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Gangster Squad is simply hyper-stylized fluff that wants to incorporate as many conventions as possible, including a montage that shows the squad members taking down Cohen’s various operations; a by-the-numbers chase scene; a few standard shootouts; some inevitable deaths; and an attack on the squad members’ families. None of these scenes surprise us and we’ve seen them before.

So now that you know what the movie has in store, is there any reason to see it? Perhaps the gifted cast? Or the slick production values? Sadly, not really. Whatever substance there is behind the true story of Mickey Cohen or the police officers who prevented his east coast mafia from taking over Los Angeles has been dumbed down to Hollywood romanticism. I wonder how much better the movie would have been had the filmmakers invested as much time into the characters and story as they had the technical presentation. I can’t say for sure, but probably better than this.