With “Gangster Squad,” director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall were apparently torn between making a romanticized crime saga and a mindless action picture. On the one hand, we have a great-looking period drama, the sets, costumes, props, and lighting all effectively playing on the nostalgia of the audience. On the other hand, we have an lackluster plot, characters that barely register as three-dimensional, and scenes of stunt work and violence that were obviously written and shot with spectacle in mind rather than substance. Fleischer must have gotten some kind of dizzy thrill from the rhythmic rat-a-tat-tatting of machineguns; he permeates the soundtrack with it, especially during the final act. I’m well aware that guns are expected – nay, necessary – in moves about cops and gangsters, but only in the right context. Unless it’s an NRA advertisement, they shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow everything else in any given scene.
Although the film is well cast, the actors appear to be on different wavelengths. Some of them, such as Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, and Nick Nolte, play it straight, paying no mind to the cinematic opportunities afforded by the film’s 1940s setting. Others, most notably Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, and Robert Patrick, opt for a more theatrical, caricaturish approach; they regard the film more as a stylistic homage, and so they intentionally raise their performances to a higher reality. Since the tone of the film is just as confused as the characterizations, it’s pointless to speculate on which set of actors got it right. I can only say that, conflicting techniques notwithstanding, the acting was decent overall. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive of actors as experienced and renowned as Sean Penn doing a bad job.
He plays a fictionalized version of gangster Mickey Cohen, a former boxer who in real life had strong ties to both the American and Jewish mafias for over thirty years, most prominently in the Los Angeles area. In the film, he’s portrayed as the quintessential mob boss – ruthless and cunning, ambitious and self-aggrandizing, spiteful and cruel. The plot, set in post-World War II, involves police chief Bill Parker of the LAPD (Nolte) and his efforts to bring Cohen down and prevent his influence from spreading. Assigned as the head of a covert task force is Sergeant John O’Mara (Brolin), a war veteran who has a history of bending the rules of the department. He repeatedly finds himself torn between his civic duty and his beloved wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), who’s pregnant with their first child.
Strange that she would be opposed to her husband doing something this dangerous yet willingly help him recruit additional officers. These would be: Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Gosling), another war veteran who’s almost never seen without a cigarette dangling out of his mouth; Detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), first seen in a jumpin’ jazz club pinning a man’s hand to the wall; Detective Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), a surveillance expert who’s more brain than brawn; and Detective Max Kennard (Patrick), a cowboy typecast who prefers his good ol’ six shooter to more modern weapons. They’re quickly joined by Kennard’s deputy, Detective Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), which is odd because he’s given just about nothing to do except be young and eager.
In a related subplot, Wooters begins an affair with Grace Faraday (Stone), Cohen’s girlfriend and occasional etiquette coach. Her purpose will not be made clear until the final act. Before then, she’s essentially an ornament, a helpless dame in need of rescuing. We do learn that she came to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress, and that those dreams never became a reality. But apart from that, she’s not developed or utilized in any meaningful way. To give credit where credit is due, Stone is absolutely striking as the epitome of old-time Hollywood glamor; when first seen, she’s in a slinky red dress that flatters her figure, and when she leans back against the bar of a swanky nightclub, her leg peeks out from a split in the front of the skirt. She has the look down pat. She even has the attitude, with flirtatious innuendo that reeks of desperation.
I repeatedly paint myself as a prude that sticks my nose up at cinematic violence. What I typically fail to convey is that I don’t mind violence at all as long as its shown in the proper context. My issue with “Gangster Squad” is not that a lot of people get shot; it’s that the shootings are glorified in the name of entertainment. Fleischer relies on a lot of slow motion, digital enhancements, and stunt choreography, which is to say that he makes his action sequences as theatrical as possible. In such cases, audiences are not required to use their brains. That might work in an action comedy, but in a film like this, it’s excessive and disturbing. If I had any say in the matter, I think I would have preferred a tamer, more stylized homage, one that pays attention to atmosphere without having to sacrifice plot and character development.