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