Review: Gangster Squad (2013)

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Directed by – Ruben Fleischer
Written by – Will Beall
Starring – John Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick & Giovanni Ribisi

Let’s be blunt about this; Gangster Squad is little more than a Scorsese film for those of a bed-wetting inclination. With its admirable but unworkable combination of classic and neo noir, it is a film in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong and in which each scrap of potential – from the cast list to the story and everything in between – is criminally wasted.

With its teenage / comic-book sensibilities, its generic seen-it-all-before plot and its utter lack of subtlety, Gangster Squad is a classic example of a film that wishes it was cleverer than it is. It is a film in which plot, character and substance are all abandoned in the name of being “stylish” (a.k.a shallow), yet one that then fails to embrace its graphic chic in anything but the most rudimentary way. It’s the type of film that spends so long trying to capture the visual essence of the era in which it is set that its style comes across as artificial and “try-hard”. Furthermore, in focussing so much on how his film looks, Fleischer (30 Minutes or Less, Zombieland) forgets to pay any attention whatsoever to the actual story upon which it is supposedly based.

In terms of plot (if one can call it that…) the film tells the tale of LAPD’s “Gangster Squad”, a special crack team of law enforcers which was set-up in 1946 to tackle the rise of the “East Coast Mafia” in the aftermath of World War 2. In this fictionalised version of the tale, the “Squad” is led by John O’Mara (Brolin; American Gangster, No Country for Old Men) whose objective is to cause irreparable damage to the crime syndicate of notorious mobster Mickey Cohen (Penn; Milk, Carlito’s Way). Alas, thanks to the usual combination of corrupt cops, a fearful population and the villain’s utter determination to destroy the squad, the return of justice to the streets of LA ain’t gonna be smooth nor easy.

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I guess the main problem here is that the entire pantomime is just so derivative, not to mention sleep-inducing. The whole “gangster in charge of the city” thing has been done to death and Gangster Squad does absolutely nothing to inject new life into a subgenre that has been flailing around in the wilderness for well over a decade already. For all of its gore, its violence and its swearing, the film is unbearably bland. It’s safe, it’s tame and it’s petrified to go against the norm, instead opting to tread a well-worn path in the most insipid way. Fleischer seems terrified to allow the film forge its own personality, lest it be compared to all the greater efforts that have come before. Alas, because the film is so unoriginal, comparisons with better films are the one thing that you simply can’t avoid…

See, this is the thing; Gangster Squad takes everything you know and admire about film-noir – its subtleties, its character complexities, its lack of hero etc. – and discards them in favour of being flashy and oh-so-stylish. The audience is hit over the head with a metaphorical wrench and then blinded by the garish vulgarity of LA, all in the name of distracting everybody from the fact that the script, the characters and the story are just so bad. An attempt seems to have been made to grant the film a “pulp” quality yet even this fails to get off the ground. The characters are caricatures of caricatures and they slot into the piece as predictability as night turns into day, each suiting a particular mould; the family man, the lover, the femme-fatale, the villain and so on and so forth. There’s something to be said for the way in which the film respects its genre but it does little to help you invest in its main players. You can’t just slot clichés into a piece of fiction without giving them some sort of personality. Alas, like the film itself, the characters are all hollow. They’re little more than shells of the types of people you might expect to see in a film-noir and, as such, it’s all but impossible to give a single shit about any of them.

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Perhaps the most irritating thing about Gangster Squad, however, is that the talents of the cast are either absent or wasted. When we’re not being subjected to the virulent overacting of Sean Penn, who somehow manages to turn his caricature of a character into even more of a joke, we have to deal with the brooding of Mr Gosling (Drive, Blue Valentine) and the stony-faced misery of Mr Brolin. Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man, Zombieland) is given a character with whom she can do absolutely nothing, while Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, Warrior) chews the scenery like a rabid dog, all in the name of overplaying the film’s apparent pulp quality. It’s not the fault of the performers as much as it is the fault of the writing, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that none of the stars are even close to being on top form.

As for the writing; well, I suppose one can give the actors a bit of a break when they’re being asked to deliver such unrepentant verbal diarrhoea. The script is full of vacuous statements that are meant to sound deep and brooding but, in fact, just sound embarrassing. Perhaps if the film were meant to be a parody this wouldn’t be a problem but it takes itself so insufferably seriously that you can’t help but laugh. The film jumps from ultra-violence (for the sake of ultra-violence rather than for the sake of plot progression) to indulgent melodrama and back again, all whilst meandering along with the most excruciating predictability.

What else can one say? For all its faults, Gangster Squad is strangely entertaining, albeit in spite of itself. The issue isn’t that it’s a terrible film rather that it’s a film in which each ounce of potential is completely wasted. Considering the wealth of talent involved I wanted much much more than Gangster Squad offered. The action sequences are solid, the final showdown is suitably thrilling (though incredibly cheesy…) and the film works, at least to an extent, as a genre piece. The problem, however, is that there’s a brilliant film in here somewhere but Ruben Fleischer just wasn’t the man to bring it into the open.


Review also posted on Letterboxd