Mark Reviews Movies

Gangster Squad


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick, Nick Nolte

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and language)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 1/11/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 10, 2013

There are so many dangling character and thematic threads in Gangster Squad that it comes as no surprise that the only way for the plot to resolve itself is with a violent shootout and a fistfight set up by a ridiculous bit of posturing. Posturing is really all the movie—inspired (read: "very loosely based") on a covert police force's attempt to take down a criminal underworld chief—has to offer. From its production design capturing Los Angeles of the mid-20th century (dimly and hazily lit, which does not help matters) to the actors dressed to the nines in period garb (stained with blood on more than a few occasions), it's a handsome-looking and pretty hollow affair.

As directed by Ruben Fleischer, Will Beall's screenplay (based on journalist Paul Lieberman's series of articles on the subject) plays like a highlight reel of ideas. The central characters are introduced in a montage; they have been assigned only the most basic of character traits, primarily little quirks defining their skills. One is good with a knife; another is a skilled marksman with a revolver (that never needs reloading).  The tech specialist wears glasses, and the cynical cop who finds rediscovers his purposes shifts from downing a tumbler of liquor to nursing a bottle of soda. Everything else about these characters—what would usually be considered the meat—is superfluous; they are caricatures with only as much personality as their fedoras and weapons allow.

This makes them, whether they be heroes or villains (They do not receive a montage; they just get someone giving them a name and a title as the camera holds on each for a beat) essentially interchangeable, an idea with which Beall's screenplay teases us on more than one occasion. Fleischer isn't buying that grayness of morality. We never doubt that the good guys are good—that their sometimes questionable actions aren't righteous—because Fleischer renders them in admiring slow-motion. When one of the heroes mentions that he wonders if they aren't any better than the man they're trying to stop, it feels as phony as the movie's oversimplified voice-over introduction.

In it, John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) speaks of the various badges people wear. For him, a wear veteran in L.A. in 1949, it's a police badge. For his eventual rival Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, in a curious performance that can never decide if it's menacing or comical), the badge is a collection of scars—a reminder of how he scrapped his way to the top rung of crime in the city or something like that (These kinds of musings help if they make some sense)—and there's that vague connection between hero and villain—cop and criminal—again.

Of course, Fleischer introduces a sweaty and angry Cohen, practicing his old boxing moves, in drab black-and-white. O'Mara, with his square jaw and squarer sense of justice, begins by saving a young woman straight off the bus and looking to fulfill her dreams of Hollywood stardom from a group of Cohen's thugs.

The plot begins when Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) offers O'Mara the opportunity to assemble an off-the-books team to combat Cohen's empire. O'Mara's pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos), who goes from distraught to supportive as the script requires, suggests he avoid the boy scouts and look for the unexpected ones.

There's Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a hard-drinking cynic who went to war and came back unable to recognize the city he left behind. He starts a fling with Grace (Emma Stone, breathy and sorely underutilized), one of Cohen's girls, and wants to stay out of O'Mara's plan until the death of an ancillary character pulls him into it. Beall develops the others even less. Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) is handy with a switchblade and wants to stop narcotics deals. Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) is something of a local legend—his face adorning a comic book—for the fact that he's killed more criminals with his six-shooter than any other cop in the department; Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) is his partner. Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is a master technician who manages to get a bug planted in Cohen's home (He also has a family, which is, well, an occupational hazard in this sort of movie).

The plot is heavy on various guerilla operations by O'Mara and his men, as they rob Cohen's rackets and, in a slow-motion montage, set fire to his businesses, beat his subordinates, and otherwise cause destruction. The Chief shows up a few times to divulge some exposition (They need to work faster, he growls), and Cohen gives the employees who fail a false sense of security before having them killed or rants and raves in his home. There's no real sense of who these people are and only a general sense of what they're doing.

The movie's repetition is all the more apparent because of its lack of specifics. Gangster Squad is preened and dressed up with nowhere to go.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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