Comedy director Ruben Fleischer switches genres for the 40s mobster film Gangster Squad. What works best is Fleischer’s ability to work great with a larger cast, never losing focus on the story or its key players. What doesn’t work is the film’s inability to become something remotely different when compared to other films of the genre. Gangster Squad isn’t a flop, but it’s far from a creative masterpiece. Fleischer’s got a great eye for comedy and a fairly competent one for action, but the film never slides past being just acceptable.
Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is the sickest and most motivated gangster in 1940s Los Angeles. He’s a former boxer turned mobster with an extreme taste for blood and corruption. If you can’t be bought you’ll simply be put down, because Cohen has the muscle and cash to control any and every single person walking the streets of Los Angeles and soon most of the East Coast.
He’s on the verge of becoming unstoppable when Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) decides to put together a team of exceptional cops to take down Cohen once and for all, off the books of course. Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) leads the pack of new and old as they single-handedly take down one of the East Coast’s most dangerous gang leaders.
Gangster Squad is a whole lot of fun if you view it as a rarely serious period piece that focuses more on locking down the style and look of the 40s than actually reenacting it. There’s not a single moment where you actually feel like you’ve been transported to the smokey clubs of yesterday, because everything feels like a set and every character feels like an actor doing an impersonation of some crime novel character of the past. There’s the damsel in distress, the tough-as-nails Sergeant, the gangster, the pretty boy, the rookie, the old-timer and the guy with the smarts.
These characters can be so quickly summed up because they never stretch beyond their initial welcome. The actors portraying said characters inject enough flavor for you to be naturally interested, but there’s never a point where Gangster Squad excels as a true-collar gangster film like the recent Public Enemies. It’s too worried about looking pretty and sticking to the character types.
Director Ruben Fleischer is much more focused on telling a light story that has a couple of good shootouts, but mostly rides on its interactions between the members of the squad.
Josh Brolin leads with a strict code of conduct. He’s all business and rarely has time to smile or say hi to his wife, played with the most distinction by Mireille Enos. Then there’s Ryan Gosling as the supporting cool guy that climbs aboard the revenge wagon after watching something bad happen to a friend. Gosling’s squeaky and nasally voice works for this one, because he’s a natural charmer and dropping a few pickup lines are the least of the film’s worries.
Sean Penn goes all-out and way over-the-top as the ruthless crime-lord Mickey Cohen. On one part he’s a blast to watch, because the stuff he says is hilarious and perfect, but there gets to be a point where he’s simply saying the same thing over and over, but with a variation of words.
The glossed over, but still important members of the squad are Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Anthony Mackie. Each bring their own quips that only help slot them in as stereotypical characters. Patrick’s the old-timer quick-draw shooter that doesn’t say much, but backs himself up with his trusty revolver. Ribisi is the geek of the bunch, setting up all of the techie stuff. Pena is the rookie that assists when needed, but mostly stays quiet until his characters eventual change into manhood and last but not least is Mackie as the wild card with a temper.
All of these men play their roles to the best of their abilities. They’re great, but they’re simple. This is a major problem, because the actual squad is pretty basic. That’s probably because writer Will Beall rarely feels that it’s necessary to insert original ideas or plot-points. He writes the squad very thin and it damages the group’s impact on the events that take place in the film.
At some point actress Mireille Enos steals the show from under all of the men and gives the typical wife character significant importance. How she manages to do this is surprising and almost distracting. It points out the weaker aspects of the film and with every scene she steals you’re drawn further and further away from caring about the actual squad’s success.
But director Ruben Fleischer knows how to work great with a large cast and he successfully manages to keep rotating us between characters, keeping things fun, fast and light.
It’s also worth noting that I absolutely hated the film’s look that was most-likely a result of shooting completely digital. Sets just look weird and unnatural, while the nighttime shootouts become digital distractions that appear flat and bare. Some might be less distracted than others, but it’s really hard not to mention the film’s look and feel. It tries too hard to remind you that it’s supposed to take place in the 40s, instead of just letting you soak it up and engage in the characters and sets naturally.
Gangster Squad is fun and entertaining for most of its running time. It has some noticeable fat that mostly rests in the film’s numerous slow-motion shootouts. These shootouts do nothing for the story, but they do show you how cool it looks to have a ton of stuff blowing up at once. They’re mostly pointless though.
Working around the fat and ignoring the horrid filming choice still leaves you with plenty of fun miles. The performances are all fitting and just right, even if they don’t extend past their cookie-cutter bios. Brolin sticks out as the best guy playing what is essentially a video game/crime novel role, while Mireille Enos gives the only true performance worthy of any sort of praise.
Fleischer’s got a lot of talent and he’s shown that in his two previous comedy films (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less). He doesn’t show many problems switching genres and I’m guessing he’s only going to get better from this point on. Gangster Squad is the proper continuation for him as a director, showing us that he can direct the hell out of his actors and mostly turn in a good action piece. It all just feels a little hollow and numb. I guess I was expecting another epic mobster film set in an interesting time period, but all I got was a quick and enjoyable piece of entertainment that will fade away from your memory in a few weeks.
I can’t complain, but I can’t really recommend it as a must-see.
Gangster Squad – 7.5/10