Title: Gangster Squad
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone
Director: Rubin Fleischer
Release: 11th January
Box Office: $27,675,680 (so far!)
On paper, it must have looked like a sure thing.
A dynamite concept (The Dirty Dozen meets The Untouchables, by way of the likes of Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon) plus an all-star cast (Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Giovanni Ribisi, and a host of second-tier stars and know-the-face-not-the-name supporting players) equals a cast-iron cinema hit. Well, rather unfortunately, director Ruben Fleischer and the troupe behind Gangster Squad have put two and two together and come up with one seriously missed opportunity.
All the elements are there: The tail of Brolin’s stoic, dogged good cop in a bad town John O’ Mara hunting down Oscar Winner Penn’s ruthlessly aggressive Mob ladder-climber Mickey Cohen with a team of perfectly (mis)matched fellow officers helping him launch a take-no-prisoners assault on the organised crime eating noir-era Hollywood up from the inside, all wrapped up in a homage to crime cinema classics shot with 21st Century verve, sounds mouth-wateringly good. It’s got beautiful people, beautiful sets and a beautifully simple story up front, and a ton of beautiful screen history backing it up. How sad then, that the derivative, overcooked mess that’s delivered to viewers is more eye-watering than mouth-watering.
Things get off to a decent start; a cold, bloody opening marks Cohen out as a particularly evil shit right off the bat, and sets up O’ Mara as a kind of proto-Clint Eastwood type, even nicking the “finger gun in the pocket” gag from Gran Torino during his first action scene, a frenetic, closely quartered breaking up of a pimping scam in one of Cohen’s hotels. So far, so clichèd, but efficient nonetheless, just like the inclusion of O’ Mara’s spunky, worried and pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos), Gosling’s chain-smoking, womanising Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a warning speech about cops not messing with the Mob in LA, a big-time racing wire scam and so on and so on…
It doesn’t take long to realise that everything in Gangster Squad has been done many times before, and sometimes better. By the time Nick Nolte’s grizzled police Chief rocks into view and gurgles a speech that initiates your standard team-building montage – which, in one of a smattering of decent twists, is run by O’ Mara’s wife – you will likely have guessed everything that is going to happen throughout the course of the film; it’s that hackneyed. Every member of the Gangster Squad has a role and a story path set out at the beginning, be it Ribisi’s squirrely wire man or Michael Pena’s puppy-dog apprentice, and that role doesn’t change from minute one to minute 113. Everything is pigeon-holed and restricted, and you can almost hear the boxes being ticked above the Tommy Gun fire.
It’s disappointing when watching to know in advance, for example, that as soon as the squad member with a wife and kid who isn’t the main character says he’s worried about joining up, and later gets told to sit out a mission, he is most definitely going to die. Or that the shoe-shine kid who befriends Wooters is going to be the catalyst that drives the unwilling copper into full-on Gangster Squad membership. Or to have an important moment in the film’s climax telegraphed so far in advance that your brain has written the dialogue for it before it’s ever spoken. As for the ending, you’ll probably have thought of it in the car on the way to the cinema. It’s the stuff that YouTube “most-used cinema clichè” montages are made of, and the film is rife with them.
Pace and tone are also mishandled. Penn chewing scenery like Robert De Niro after six months in the desert as Cohen (his monologue about his first crime seeing him literally arguing to an empty room) in the gin joint at the centre of the plot, Slapsy Maxie’s, looking and behaving like something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and a comical jailbreak scene sit garishly at odds with moments where a man is torn in half by two cars and an assassin strangles someone as he is set on fire.
Dialogue that should be zipping back and forth, between Wooters and Grace (Stone)in particular, instead falters thanks to inappropriate pauses totally unlike the classic Hollywood detective stories Fleischer and writer Will Beall are trying to reference it with. The action suffers from being too modern, as well, with CG sticking out like a sore thumb during a chase scene and a bloody, slo-mo riddled final shootout that works fine on its own but doesn’t feel like the right end to everything that has gone before it.
The main disappointment is that Gangster Squad almost gets away with it all, but for the continuous pervasive sense of just okay-ness that creeps in and scuppers any momentum it threatens to gather throughout. Dion Beebe’s stately cinematography is so lush it practically trickles, and Steve Jablonsky’s thumping old-school score builds nicely around the action and emphasises some moments on screen to thrilling effect. The cast, who all look really good in fedoras and suspenders, are clearly having fun, too – with the exception of the woefully underused Stone who starts off all femme fatale, but ends up a damp squib damsel in distress – and this helps paper over some of the storyline cracks.
Best performance is a toss-up between Gosling in full-on (if squeaky-voiced) Steve McQueen mode, channeling the King of Cool right down to his attention-seeking use of a Zippo, and Robert Patrick’s grizzled shit-kicker Max Kennard, who’s cowboy-in-noir-land brings some essential gravitas to proceedings. The team are, thankfully, a believable unit for the most part, and everyone in the Gangster Squad gets a moment to shine; a doomed first mission, the use of war-time mobile phones to communicate, inventing telephone triangulation, and a cool single-shot montage of the squad rousting a gang of mobsters are all highlights.
But it’s not enough, and between the by-the-numbers plot, see-saw tone, funereal pace and bloated run-time the whole thing doesn’t amount to a hill of beans by the end, and only for the collected abilities of some of the talent involved would have been a total shambles. It’s perfect fodder for a lazy Sunday afternoon in front of the box; very undemanding and easily forgettable.