Gangster Squad is not a good movie. It regurgitates a plethora of gangster-genre tropes in a paint-by-numbers narrative fluffed out by a derivative script. The characters are paper cut-outs, not complex or well-developed enough to care about, reciting lines of dialogue that are as uninspired as they are daft. But worse than this, while the film teeters on the edge of being ‘so-bad-its-good’ it never quite embraces its schlockier moments to allow for an ironic and humorous viewing of the film. It is a film that seems to reach for a level of quality that will place it alongside L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables, while featuring the kind of exaggerated superficiality that makes it more comparable to a duller Dick Tracey.
Based loosely on true events, Gangster Squad tells the story of Mickey Cohen’s (Sean Penn) ruthless takeover of 1940’s Los Angeles, and the undercover police squad who collaborated to take him down. A tyrannical sadist who believes it his divine calling to control the city, Cohen exercises his power through a series of insidious underground businesses, including heroin trafficking and brothels. Penn- who seems to be entering the ‘Nicholas Cage-batshit crazy phase of his career – plays Cohen with over-the-top gusto that leaves no scenery left un-chewed.
Enter Sgt. John O’Mara, a war-veteran cum police officer, who is tasked with taking Cohen and his brood down and restoring peace. The team O’Mara assembles is filled out with a set of prescribed personality types: the ‘smart-one (Giovanni Ribisi), the ‘street-wise one’ (Anthony Mackie), the ‘crusty old gunslinnger’ (Robert Patrick) and his ‘token Mexican friend’ (Michael Pena). The team wages war against Cohen in what feels like an endless series of poorly staged shoot-outs and commonplace undercover investigation drawn straight from the how-to guide for gangster films (they wire-tap Cohen’s house!).
This central story is sidelined by a romantic complication between the team’s ladies’ man Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and Cohen’s etiquette coach-slash-mistress Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Gosling and Stone attempt to reignite a chemistry that was so evident in Crazy Stupid Love, but come up short in a relationship that feels like a dispassionate narrative convenience. Gosling, playing the role with a strange, high-pitched affectation in his voice, is vacuous and confused throughout the film while Stone, as the stand-in feme-du-jour, isn’t allowed to play to her natural charm and comedic strengths.
Directed by Rueben Fliescer, who demonstrated a flare for genre-spoofing comedy with 2009’s Zombieland, has all the makings of a really good gangster-film send-up. But instead, Gangster Squad chooses to aim for sincerity, missing the mark and landing in the ditches of mediocrity. The film lacks a cohesive tonality – over-playing certain moments while under-playing others. The rest of the film never gets on board with the over-the-top grandiosity of Penn’s performance, whose scenes are, if not great, really fun to watch. Reflecting this confusion is the film’s visual style, which oscillates between highly saturated, digitally altered cinematography and more natural, ‘realistic’ colour schemes. Gangster Squad, by ignoring it’s inclination to schlock, flat lines, existing as a vacant carcass of clichés and plot holes.