When it stays light and adventurous, “Gangster Squad” has its minutes of spirited entertainment. But too often it attempts to mimic other films while pulling back the reigns of exuberance for a much darker approach. Zigzagging between callous seriousness one minute to comical zaniness the next, the film offers a mishmash of tones, styles, and gangster movie clichés. Consistency is not its strong point. By the third time slow-motion shootouts and glamorous dames awash in billowing cigarette smoke give way to tedious villains and brooding montages, any sense of direction vanishes - along with the fun.
It’s 1940’s Los Angeles and power-hungry mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) begins a relentless quest to take over the entire city. In order to stop him, Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) tasks gung-ho Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) with creating the “Gangster Squad,” a secret group of unorthodox officers who will stop at nothing to bring Cohen down. Quickly becoming as ruthless as the very thugs they’re assigned to apprehend, O’Mara, Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Harris (Anthony Mackie), Kennard (Robert Patrick), Ramirez (Michael Pena), and Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) begin destroying Cohen’s empire one operation at a time. But when Wooters falls for Cohen’s girl Grace (Emma Stone) and the gangster discovers the identities of his adversaries, the battalion must prepare for a war that will determine the fate of the city.
“Gangster Squad” doesn’t know what it wants to be. As eclectic as the colors are in the movie (though certainly not as extreme as “Dick Tracy”), so too are the continually shifting tones and styles. The end credits appear as pulpy vacation postcard illustrations (the last of the unexpected fluctuations in imagery) which sharply contrast with the initial scenes of ultra bloody violence (featuring a man being torn apart by vehicles, a la “The Hitcher,” which seems like a goofy execution in the face of serious villainy), the later moments of romance, and the climactic showdown in the Plaza Hotel. It’s all as hodgepodged as last year’s “Lawless,” continually trying to impart severity, attraction, adventure, and even comedy at different moments, but forcing the wrong emotions. Several scenes of action will likely garner eye rolls, while elements of brutality will evoke laughter… unintentionally (the incredibly high rate of gunfire is hilarious in comparison to stricken targets, especially as enemies unleash machineguns against pistols and still hit nearly nothing).
Penn wants to be De Niro and Pacino simultaneously, but instead emerges ridiculous, forgetting his accent and tripping over his unnatural, obligatory mercilessness. The language, hats, coats, dresses, flasks, guns, cars, and cigarettes all bring momentary authenticity, but they’re no match for the exceedingly contemporary camera angels (zooming through car windows during breakneck midnight chases), high definition slow motion, and overly apparent special effects, which take every opportunity to pluck audiences from their suspensions of disbelief to draw attention to the technical methods. There are junctures of fun, however, in the guerilla warfare tactics, battling crooked cops, assembling a dream team (not unlike “The Untouchables” or “Ocean’s Eleven”), and the Wild West, loose cannon, one-liner gun show that is Robert Patrick. But O’Mara’s confidence and “bull in a china shop” approach to law enforcement is frequently too generic and consummates in dead civilians, revenge attacks, and massive shootouts in which participants stand like stalwart statues in plain sight while bullets whiz around them, making contact with every prop in the background. Few viewers will be seeing these ideas for the first time.
- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)