Though made for a plethora of reasons, a film need only achieve one goal to be successful: it needs to be entertaining. Engaging characters, good performances, and a story that is engrossing, even if a bit cardboard or cliche. When a film ultimately fails, it is because its characters are wooden or stereotypical, the storyline is boring, and the only question it might raise is, "was this intended to be sleep therapy for a study on insomnia?" Set that film in 1949 and make it about gangsters and cops, and you've got Gangster Squad, a film so inept that Ruben Fleischer should win an award for managing to make a violent action movie that could put an olympic sprinter to sleep in mid-stride.
Josh Brolin stars as Sgt. Something-or-other, a no-nonsense cop who is recruited by the grizzled police chief (Nick Nolte, who eats sandpaper, apparently) to stop a gangster from taking over Los Angeles. Brolin broods as the take-no-prisoners Sarge, his squad rarely referring to him by name because they probably can't remember his name either. Despite how stylized the trailers may seem, how action-packed and exciting it promises to be, this is little more than a stable of stereotypes loosed upon mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles and hoping not to bore it half to death. It becomes exhausting to try to care about what's going on in the film because the characters haven't got a shred of credibility between them; the only enjoyment comes from Robert Patrick, himself packed tightly into the stereotype of the sharpshooting old westerner.
Sean Penn's utterly ham-fisted Mickey Cohen is taken down, but who cares? The film never makes you care about the struggle against him or the city under his rule; he's ruthless, he's tough as nails, and he's every other stereotype of the evil gangster that Sean Penn could look up the day after he got cast and decided to cram into the character. Every single actor in this film has been utterly fantastic in other films; how could the ensemble be so frightfully uninteresting? The utterly versatile and likeable Ryan Gosling is so bland and watered-down that he seems confused as to why he is even in the film. Emma Stone is rendered to eye candy, a crime given her considerable talents.
Yet, as contrived as the characters are, it doesn't come close to touching how terrible the script is. Penn mugs at the camera, his only character directon seemingly "sound more angry" or "be more gangster-y." The film does itself a disservice to not show Cohen's rise to power- it wants the audience to see how powerful Cohen is, but killing his own men for their ineptitude and eating a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant does nothing to imbue the fear that Mickey is supposed to represent into the script. He quite honestly seems rather harmless, and without a villain to care about, the gangster squad's mission to tackle said villain becomes even more pointless.
The real tragedy here is the fact that for two hours, there are guns firing, flashy action sequences and big period set pieces, yet none of it seems all that interesting. It needed to be longer; it needed to go deeper. Having Sarge's wife tell the audience that he'll pick duty over family is supposed to be meaningful, but the scene is unnecessary- the opening sequence with Brolin's character tells everyone that. Too much time is spent between characters needlessly talking exposition at the audience. Time better spent developing a camraderie between the squad members is instead spent on slow-motion sequences or on Brolin's chin-set, Mickey-Cohen-is-bad speeches. If Mickey Cohen is so terrible, why doesn't a film about his downfall just show the audience that?
Not to say that Gangster Squad is completely bereft of enjoyment. The period setting was very well done, with some magnificent costume and set design. It may have been senseless and boring, but at least it felt like it was boring in 1949 and wasn't really out of place. A chase sequence early on with some vintage automobiles is excellently handled, filled with some great explosive tension, figuratively and literally. The film handles most of its gunplay and action sequences quite well, it's just a shame that all the bullets are coming from guns shot by gunmen and are flying at targets that are equally vapid and meaningless. These aren't characters, they're shells, into which an actor was poured and just told to act like a single-line description from an old pulp novel about gangsters.
Despite a moment here or there of decent action, there's nothing redeemable about the entire experience that is Gangster Squad. It is empty, boring, and ultimately will leave the audience feeling... well, nothing. What should have been an excellent period film with gangsters and cops with some depth and character exploration is instead ripe with brevity, with everything thrown at the screen wrapped in a stereotype with so little substance, you can almost see through Mickey Cohen. Two out of five stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
Don't say you haven't been warned, but if you're still insisting on seeing this train wreck, check out the trailer before you go. If you're a fan of my reviews please subscribe to them and share them; your support means everything to me! You can also become a fanboy/girl and follow me on Twitter or book my face.