There was a time when Gangster Squad was one of the hottest tickets of 2012, and how could it not be? Featuring a stone cold awesome cast of superstars like Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone paired up with other recognizable stars in a gritty 1940s mobster shoot 'em up, the film looked like a lock for Oscar consideration. And then the tragedy struck in Aurora, CO, and the studio took measures to bump the film back to January to remove a scene that was a little too similar.
But is that the real reason why they moved it? And why would they place it in January where generally the worst movies are left to die with the least possible attention? The answer is that they realized what they truly had on their hands, an entertaining but wholly unspectacular flick that can't seem to figure out if it wants to be The Untouchables or Dick Tracy. Oddly directed by Zombieland's Ruben Fleischer, the film is draped in hard-boiled period detail; big cars, fast women, and tommy guns. But the script by ex-cop Will Beall never quite gets the rhythm of the era down pat. It's a little too gimmicky and eccentric to be taken seriously, even with tons of violence and a surprising amount of gore.
Josh Brolin, looking grimmer than ever, is grizzled war hero turned LA cop John O'Mara, who has a penchant for playing cowboy and roughing up the businesses of infamous mobster, Mickey Cohen(Sean Penn). Penn, decked out in so much heavy make-up he resembles a napping sharpei, is clearly just around to prove even a hammy performance can be made to look good by a talented actor. Cohen is, of course, the worst of the worst. A Jewish ex-boxer who rose up the ranks of the Irish mob, Cohen has a brutal streak a mile long and a temper half as short. When we first meet him he's dispatching an old foe in a most despicable fashion. Let's just say it involves a couple of cars, some rope, and a pack of very hungry canines. The police, politicians, and judges are all in his pocket, and now he's got designs on dispatching his competition and taking over the LA sportsbook completely. It's his right, because of manifest destiny or something.
The players are all so familiar you can probably rattle them off without any visual aids. Nick Nolte, sounding like he's been smoking road flares, plays the police Chief who puts together an off-the-books task force to shut Cohen down. O'Mara, along with his firecracker of a wife(Mirielle Enos), put together a racially diverse crew of bad boys. Ryan Gosling is soft-voiced ladies man Jerry Wooters; Anthony Mackie is street hero Rocky Washington; Giovanni Ribisi as genius surveillance pro Conway Keeler; Robert Patrick as sharp-shootin' gunslinger Max Kenard; with Michael Pena as his partner, Navidad.
With the exception of a first mission that goes bad in a most comical way, most of the film is strictly by the numbers. Bullets fly, in Matrix-endorsed "Bullet Time" no less, henchman get beat down for information or caught in a hail of gunfire. Jerry gets involved with Cohen's girlfriend, Grace Faraday(Emma Stone), which puts them both in an awkward position when the cops start cracking down on the mobster's operations. Stone's character is severely under-written, and whatever chemistry she forged with Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love has evaporated. Gosling, a wonderfully gifted actor, is so aloof he might as well be comatose. Brolin is all grit and spitfire, though, a bad ass who energizes every scene. Mackie and Pena are mostly wasted, while Patrick hasn't been this much fun to watch since Terminator 2.
No cliche escapes Beall's script, pulling from every cops 'n robbers flick you and he have ever seen. But what cliches they are! You can't really go wrong borrowing from The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential, and Gangster Squad takes enough to be a thrilling but forgettable diversion. Considering the wealth of talent and the exciting time period, shouldn't we be expecting more?
After years of the LAPD depicted in film as little more than corrupt, murderous, racist abusers of authority, between this and End of Watch we've seen them twice portrayed as the good guys. Somebody in their press office must be smiling right now.