Gangster Squad – is Ruben Fleischer’s new film worth the wait?

Director Ruben Fleischer shot to fame after his hit first feature, Zombieland: a film that used a great mix of humour and action as well as amazing, vivid and colourful cinematography. Fleischer now releases his third film (after the awful ‘comedy’ 30 Minutes or Less), this time a drama set in late 1940’s L.A. about gangsters vs. cops, based on the true story of real-life mob boss Mickey Cohen. Delayed from being released at the end of last year when reshoots were needed (after a scene in the original story too closely resembled a terrible incident that occurred in the news), is Gangster Squad worth the wait?

Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is a powerful and ruthless gangster in charge of everyone and everything in L.A. Even most of the police are controlled by him. Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) is determined to take back the power in the city and selects brave and heroic Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to secretly set up his own team of undercover officers who can help shut down Cohen’s operation. The squad itself is made up of a group of cops who each have their own unique set of skills – Anthony Mackie is tough Officer Coleman Harris, Giovanni Ribisi is smart addition Officer Keeler, Robert Patrick is legendary gangster killer Max Kennard, and Michael Peña is Navidad Ramirez, a protégé of Kennard’s who they reluctantly let join them as well. O’Mara asks young Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) to join them too but he refuses, pessimistically seeing that they will never be able to change things in L.A. and stop Cohen. Besides, Jerry has bigger problems, mainly stopping Cohen finding out that he has been seeing his girl (Emma Stone) behind his back…

Everyone here, especially in the squad, is great in their respective roles, in particular Giovanni Ribisi as the geeky one and the only one with a conflicted conscience about what the squad does. And of course Sean Penn as the ruthless Mickey Cohen is superb, disappearing into the role (and under a lot of prosthetic make-up). To say he makes him terrifying is an understatement. Robert Patrick is also great but his character can at times slide into stereotypical rootin’-tootin’ cowboy territory. And in my opinion Michael Peña – always excellent and who can play both comical and serious easily – is also excellent here, but is criminally underused throughout the film. However overall it is Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters who steals the show, again creating a brilliantly charismatic and often funny character. Gosling also expertly conveys Jerry’s growth from charming Romeo who doesn’t really know what he wants from life, into a serious man determined to do whatever it takes to help the squad stop Cohen. He is also great in any scenes pairing him onscreen with Emma Stone (who both previously worked together on Crazy, Stupid, Love). Again Emma Stone is also excellent, but she needs more screen time as Cohen’s put-upon moll – she is given no backstory and not much to do throughout, a shame as her talents feel wasted here.

While everyone else in the cast is great, it is actually Josh Brolin who comes out of Gangster Squad looking the most impressive. His character’s story is the most interesting as the award-winning cop who doesn’t know when to stop, even though he leaves a pregnant wife at home every time he goes out and faces danger. Brolin portrays this effortlessly, creating a character who while he might seem perfect at capturing criminals, is actually far from perfect in other respects – a man who is sinking too deep into something that could destroy him and his family.

As was the case with Zombieland, the cinematography used throughout is actually one of the most striking things about Gangster Squad. The colours that are used sometimes makes it look almost like a comic book come to life. And again, as in Zombieland, Fleischer manages to create exciting action scenes, in particular a fabulous car chase and a meticulously timed club raid. The end sequence also has one of the best looking shootouts you’re ever likely to see.

However while I enjoyed Gangster Squad at the time, there is just something about it that left me feeling very disappointed afterwards. While the story is entertaining and action-packed, there isn’t much going on below the central idea of the squad. There is very little character development for any of the characters, other than O’Mara (Brolin) and possibly at a stretch Jerry (Gosling) through his subplot with Mickey’s girl, Grace (Stone). However for the most part, the other characters are left in the dark. In fact you struggle to remember exactly how many people are in the titular squad; that is how underdeveloped some of them are. This is no fault of the actors, who all do an excellent job of portraying the characters – it is the writing that leaves them as flat, two-dimensional beings, meaning you don’t really care what happens to them. The film also can’t decide exactly what it wants to be. One minute it’s a violent and serious drama, the next it’s a comedy; but there aren’t enough laughs in it to warrant it being an out-and-out comedy like Zombieland was. This leaves it feeling like a confused concept that doesn’t know how it wants to keep your attention.

One achievement with the story that I can’t fault Fleischer or writer Will Beall on though is the changed cinema shoot-out sequence that had to be removed. They have done such a good job with altering the storyline that this lost scene isn’t really missed at all. In fact I can’t say for sure exactly which part of the plot was changed to remove this. However this positive aside, the overall story still doesn’t completely work, seeming like a rushed narrative rather than a compelling tale that you will want to revisit more than once.

Gangster Squad is filled with expert performances from all of the actors involved, but the story needed to have something more to mark this as an iconic gangster flick. Yes, it looks beautiful throughout, but this is just another film that is an example of too much time spent on style, not enough spent on content; a classic mistake that will leave you feeling pretty hollow after watching this.


~ by square-eyed-geek on February 1, 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: