There’s a famous line in Macbeth in which the titular character laments on a purposeless life by indicating that it is, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I am now open to the idea that Shakespeare wasn’t actually speaking about life in general but rather on the future meaninglessness of a little movie called Gangster Squad. In 1949 Los Angeles, Eastern mob Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has undertaken a brutal takeover of all organized crime on the West Coast. With a mind on stopping this epidemic at any cost, police sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) forms a group of like-minded cops who leave their badges at home in order to wage outright war against Cohen, a group that comes to be known as the Gangster Squad. Things are complicated, however, by Sergeant Jerry Wooters’ (Ryan Gosling) involvement with Grace Farraday (Emma Stone) who happens to be Cohen’s current squeeze. As the Gangster Squad puts more and more pressure on Cohen’s organization, the stakes get higher, leading to a final showdown that will put more than one body in the ground.
Gangster Squad has two big selling points. One is the gangster storyline itself. I, like any good American male, love gangster movies, partly because gangsters are (somewhat disturbingly) cool and partly because most gangster movies involve a cop or other hero who will stop at nothing to bring the villain down and I am a serious sucker for that character trope. Two, Gangster Squad brought together an impressive cast. If Penn, Brolin, Gosling, and Stone aren’t enough for you, quality supporters like Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michael Pena round out the squad and a handful of other solid character actors make appearances from time to time. I think everyone involved did the best they could under the circumstances (see below) but Penn and Gosling stand out head and shoulder above the rest. Penn completely bought into his character and he does his dead level best to sell it the audience. And Gosling, who is rapidly becoming one of my Hollywood favorites, is charismatic and dynamic, at times the only truly memorable performer on the screen. It’s a fairly light weight character compared to the rest of Gosling’s resume but he does a lot with it and I would have enjoyed Gangster Squad far more if he was the focus of the film throughout.
It would be disingenuous to say that I disliked everything else about Gangster Squad. There are some good action shots, it’s a very pretty and stylish movie, and I can’t say it is a complete loss. But the missteps made in the process of producing Gangster Squad were large and severely debilitating. Given the success (and hilarity) of Zombieland, I believe that director Ruben Fleischer is capable of making a good film. Unfortunately his two follow up efforts (this one, along with 30 Minutes or Less) have shown him to be a man who may be in over his head. Gangster Squad is a checklist of filmmaking mistakes. It cannot decide whether it wants to be a comedy or an action drama and it often switches tone mid-scene. Some of the action sequences are cartoonish, some shaded through a noir-ish lens, some done in Matrix-style slow motion that seems completely out of place. It struggles mightily to maintain pacing and momentum and as such, very little tension or drama is carried over from scene to scene, leaving the whole seeming like disconnected parts that probably don’t together all that well in the first place. I was prepared for a lot of things with Gangster Squad but I was not prepared for the boredom that set in quite quickly or the lack of investment I felt toward most of the characters. The dialogue is a joke, except when it’s supposed to be a joke in which case it almost always falls completely flat. The whole movie is flush with clichés, resulting in a predictable narrative that just about anyone could have pegged from the start. And let’s not forget the brutal voiceover that sits over the opening and closing credits like a cloud of smog and serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever.
All of this makes Gangster Squad a grab bag of mistakes that not even Gosling, Penn, and the rest can work around. It looks great and all but it seems to me that Fleischer and the rest of his crew got too caught up in the way the film appears and the awesomeness of the cast and forgot to actually put together a worthwhile script that would highlight these assets. Above all else, Gangster Squad is a wasted opportunity that just made me want to go home and watch LA Confidential or The Untouchables.
Gangster Squad Director: Ruben Fleischer Cast: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone Rated: R (occasionally explosive and graphic violence, language, some innuendo) Recommended For: I’m leaning towards “nobody”