Title: Gangster Squad
Directed By: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi
In some ways, you can argue that modern-day Hollywood is trying their best to get back in touch with it’s glory days. In recent years we’ve seen filmmakers successfully reinvigorate our love for westerns. Since that genre is beginning to emerge once again in cinema, maybe others will follow suit. Warner Bros Pictures put their trust in director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) and screenwriter Will Beall’s hands when they let them be a part of “Gangster Squad.” What could have been a cool combination of old Hollywood gangster movie motifs with great modern-day touches of direction and acting turned into the first lackluster movie of 2013.
“Gangster Squad” is very loosely based off of criminal Mickey Cohen as he slowly took ahold of Los Angeles’ criminal world in the late 1940s. The movie talks about a police squad who goes undercover in order to destroy Mickey Cohen’s reputation and ultimately put him in jail.
Let’s touch upon the cast first. Each one of these actors is a shining star in their own right, but none of them are really giving any stellar performances. When the entire “gangster squad” is assembled, the actors’ chemistry with each other works but feels crippled by the dialogue. The one person whose acting suffered the most in the picture was Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen. He comes off as a caricature of old Hollywood gangster villains, and the dialogue he spits out isn’t too far from it. Penn is uttering abysmal lines like “Los Angeles is my destiny” in almost every single frame that he’s in. It just makes his character seem comical, which you don’t want if you’re trying to be a terrifying bad guy.
And yes, we understand that Emma Stone is a big rising star of this generation. We know you were trying to make her look like a version of Lauren Bacall, and she does have that soft, smoldering sensuality that she puts into her character. We just hated the fact that physically they were trying to make her more like Bacall in the upper area of that red dress when clearly they shouldn’t have done that in the first place. That was just mean. Still, her and Gosling had what it took to believe that these two would become lovers. Gosling’s composed, smooth exterior over his emotionally soft interior was great to see too.
Obviously the actors weren’t the worst part of the film. Let’s go to exhibit A, which is the script. We’ve already touched upon the lackluster dialogue that’s littered throughout the picture, but it doesn’t stop there. The “gangster squad” is able to find the pieces of the puzzle that will ultimately bring Mickey Cohen down a lot easier than you would imagine. The story’s dilemma over trying to get Mickey Cohen just isn’t as complicated, dark or gritty as it could have been. You can see the skeletal structure of how they wanted “Gangster Squad” to be more like it’s 1940s movie ancestors, but it never quite gets there. On top of that, everything wraps up in a bow a little too neatly. In a way, “Gangster Squad” comes off more as a fantasy of how effective the Los Angeles police department could be back in the day, intertwined with the daydream that the City of Angels is microscopically small, stretching only to downtown and Burbank.
That’s where Ruben Fleischer comes in. A director can go and make Los Angeles back in its early days either appear to be a canvas that’s barely been painted on (“The Rocketeer”) or make it feel smaller than it really is, which is what Fleischer did. In 1940s mystery and crime thrillers, they gave you a sense that there’s a bigger community out there in growing Los Angeles and New York City, even if most of the picture is shot in sound stages. Fleischer and company make the audience feel like they’re in sound stages for most of the movie. The characters’ world is boxed into a small container and doesn’t appear to have much life in it. It pains this reporter to say it, but after watching “Gangster Squad” you can see that the better half of “Zombieland” was not the direction but the script. Along with that, Fleischer’s modern-day Zack Snyder style of slow/fast/slow motion has no place in a 1940s gangster picture. The movie appears contemporary to a fault, complete with unnecessary over-saturation that makes the film absolutely ugly.
Speaking of ugly, who decided to leave the temp score for “The Dark Knight Rises” in “Gangster Squad”? Apologies Steve Jablonsky, but your high octane action scores have no place in this movie. When the treble starts to make the theater rumble as we creep towards the climax, many audience members are sitting around waiting to see if Batman will be popping up. Simply put, the music just did not work.
On paper “Gangster Squad” sounds like a great idea. You’ve got a hot director taking on a well-loved genre, a former cop writing the script and a stellar cast. It’s just a major disappointment to see “Gangster Squad” be a sorry impression of a crime-thriller made in the 1940s more than anything else.