CINEMA RELEASE: GANGSTER SQUAD

Release date: 10th January 2013

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Sean Penn

Review by Peter Gray

In 1949 Los Angeles boxer turned mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is the unofficial crime king.  In a city ruled by the mob, he’s the top dog with certain high-end figures feeding out of his pocket, supplied with an endless stream of women and drugs and dishing out cold-blooded violence when necessary.  To combat Cohen the police force are looking to recruit a select group of cops in a bid to shut down his operations, specifically those with next to no ambition as they’re less likely to be as easily corrupted.  Under the direction of Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) and handpicked by John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a former war vet turned sergeant, the “gangster squad” is formed consisting of smooth talking sergeant  Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), and officers Harris (Anthony Mackie), Kennard (Robert Patrick), Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and Ramirez (Michael Pena), all equipped with their own special skills.  Complicating matters is Jerry’s growing affection for Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), an etiquette tutor for Cohen who essentially becomes his property.

This is the basic storyline for ‘Gangster Squad’, a film that feels like it should at least be enjoyable in a throw-away entertainment kind of way, but sadly misses its mark leaving the burning question of “what if?”  Director Ruben Fleischer (‘Zombieland’) has assembled such a stellar cast, one that any seasoned director would slaver over, and yet he fails to extract any strand of authenticity from them as performers.  There seems to be little purpose here other than to showcase an endless stream of wearisome gun bouts with the odd glossy stylisation (or over-stylisation in this case) thrown in to help the film achieve its classic look.  The blame doesn’t entirely lay with Fleischer though as he can only work with what he’s provided and the script from relative newcomer Will Beall (a permanent fixture on the writing staff of the TV series ‘Castle’ and hired to pen the much anticipated ‘Justice League’ film) is particularly generic in its treatment.  Based on an L.A. Times series by journalist Paul Lieberman, who chronicled the formation of the real gangster squad, it’s evident that it wasn’t so much a case of not having any firm information to work off of, but more so it’s handling as the plan to have the film drenched in violence clearly ended up being the sole focus, losing any strand of substance in its wake.

The film opens with a gruesome offing involving a body tied between two cars, and when the characters aren’t shooting it out there’s healthy doses of fistfights, and as much as you expect a gangster film to feature such brutality, here it doesn’t quite mesh as these intense sequences are offset by visuals that though attractive, ultimately seem hollow and a mere excuse to temporarily grab attention.  A wide shot of L.A.’s radiant nightlife, the colourful ensemble of a club performer akin to Carmen Miranda, and Emma Stone’s first appearance in the film in a raven toned dress all rest comfortably on the eyes but are nothing more than just a distraction from the films artificiality.  On the mention of Stone her requirements here are light to say the least, either smoke or look solemn, and the chemistry that sparkled so brightly between herself and Gosling in their last outing, ‘Crazy Stupid Love’, is sadly missing here.  Gosling doesn’t come off in the greatest light either, though far from terrible, his oddly soft, boyish tone and consistently tired eyes make him seem more like a boy pretending to be a man rather than the take charge type he should be, and anyone who has seen ‘Drive’ is fully aware he has what it takes to be an imposing force.  Brolin doesn’t make the most captivating lead, but he at least looks the part, and the squad themselves all fall far too easily into their respective stereotypes; Giovanni Ribisi as the geeky technician? Of course!  And then there’s Penn, chewing the scenery like he’s starving and heavily caked under an exaggerated prosthetic nose, portraying Cohen as a rampant, full-blown psychotic, devoid of any magnetism.  This is one of the weaker turns for the Oscar winning actor, but the film would certainly be less fun without him involved.

Originally slated for a release last September, Warner Bros. opted to delay the feature following the tragic cinema shootings in Aurora, US when the finale formerly consisted of a shoot-out in a movie theatre.  Now with the recent tragedy in Connecticut, the revised ending seems just as unfortunate but perhaps ‘Gangster Squad’ was always a release that the company never felt confident with and getting it out of the way so early in the year is the best way to guarantee it a post-Christmas audience before it’s hastily forgotten.

My rating 2/5 (The first fault of 2013)






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