DIR: Ruben Fleischer • WRI: Will Beall • PRO: Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadross• DOP: Dion Beebe • ED: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert • DES: Maher Ahmad • CAST: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi
It’s quite obvious a significant level of effort was put into the production of Gangster Squad. A crack team of award-winning and well-regarded actors were persuaded to take part – whether through artistic or financial motivations we will never know. Considerable energy, both practical and computer generated, has been put into evoking 1949 Los Angeles. After principal photography had wrapped, Warner Bros. made the not insignificant decision to get everyone back together for expensive reshoots when a key ‘cinema shootout’ sequence drew unfortunate parallels with the Aurora massacre. So yes: time and money was undoubtedly spent getting Gangster Squad into theatres. Shame the script didn’t really deserve the effort.
The set up, supposedly inspired by true events: determined LAPD sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is ordered by his chief (Nick Nolte) to set up a secret ‘guerrilla’ squad to take down increasingly powerful (and real-life) gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). O’Mara pulls together a team including an old gun (Robert Patrick), the old gun’s young protégée (Michael Pena), a tough but virtuous beat cop (Anthony Mackie) and a tech-head / family man (Giovanni Ribisi). There’s also Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who happens to be having an affair with Cohen’s moll Grace (Emma Stone). Can O’Mara save L.A. from corruption, while fulfilling his promise to his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) to not get himself killed?
Here’s the thing: every time a character is introduced, every time a seemingly throwaway line of dialogue is given that little extra emphasis, every time the classic three-act structure requires a very particular plot development… you know exactly what’s coming next. Gangster Squad is lacking in the element of surprise, and Will Beall’s script is derivative to an absolute fault. There’s nothing you haven’t experienced before, often in vastly superior form. Given the film’s deep debt to countless film noir and gangster films past, some degree of familiarity is to be expected, but this is simply lazy. A surprisingly brutal duo of opening sequences tease that we’re in hard-boiled territory. Alas, everything that follows is soft and runny, right through to an unconvincingly sunny side up ending. The film taunts that it might probe the moral ambiguity of the increasingly unhinged police at the centre of the tale, but they are mere taunts. Those looking for character development, despair: Gangster Squad is not the motion picture you seek (although Enos as O’Mara’s wife is allowed to be a tad more proactive than might be expected from such a potentially thankless role).
Pitifully formulaic though it may be, it also passes the time without great offense being caused (ludicrously high ‘generic gangster’ body count aside). The cast have all done better, but no one embarrasses themselves, so hooray there. Director Ruben Fleisher’s direction isn’t anything to write home about, but the film is tightly paced with little waste. The action set pieces, barring some uneven attempts at slo-mo stylisation, are diverting, particularly an amusing prison breakout sequence. And while the film could hardly be accused of being the most intoxicating period drama ever made, mid twentieth century L.A. is evoked well enough through period detail and era-appropriate soundtrack choices.
So Gangster Squad is the dictionary definition of ‘alright’ then – passes the time, but near instantly forgettable due to its formulaic writing. Hollywood has produced worse films about Hollywoodland, but its also made much better.