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Gangster Squad

2013 | 113 min | R | 2.39:1

Gangster Squad


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1 user review

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Theatrical release date

 11 January, 2013
 10 January, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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Screenshots from Gangster Squad Blu-ray

Gangster Squad Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, January 10, 2013

“Gangster Squad” shoots itself in the foot right out of the gate by suggesting the movie is somehow rooted in fact. Sure, there was a mafia figure known as Mickey Cohen, and yes, he certainly had an interest in dominating Los Angeles, but the rest of this picture is more cartoon than history. While adapting a true crime book by author Paul Lieberman, the production doesn’t know when to stick with the facts or create its own narrative, fumbling an engaging take on mob warfare and police desperation by trying to turn it all into a stylized, overly emphatic actioner, complete with blazing Tommy guns, professional wrestling-style performances, and a simplified conflict to extract the most machismo. “Gangster Squad” disappoints in a big bad way.

In 1949, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is eager to build his criminal empire into something substantial, laying the groundwork to centralize gambling and assorted vices in Los Angeles, keeping law and order at his command. Frustrated with legal attempts to bring Cohen to justice, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) offers decorated war vet and upstanding cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) a chance to lead a covert squad dedicated to pushing the mobster out of the city. Building his team with Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Det. Rocky Washington (Anthony Mackie), Det. Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Det. Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and Det. Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), John commences a true battle for Los Angeles, out to disrupt Cohen’s flow of drugs, gambling, and prostitutes. Complicating matters is Jerry’s relationship with Cohen’s top gal, Grace (Emma Stone), while John’s pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), worries about her obstinate husband and his singular drive to uphold the law.

“Gangster Squad” is the third film from director Ruben Fleischer, who burst onto the scene with his confident work on 2009’s “Zombieland.” However, that sense of cinematic purpose was blurred in 2011’s “30 Minutes or Less,” while “Gangster Squad” has the atmosphere of a helmer with big ideas unable to successfully tattoo his vision on the big screen. The feature is a festival of mediocrity, dragging along the ground despite creative elements and a lion’s roar of a premise that’s dying to remain airborne. Fleischer’s job here is less about direction and more about refereeing, trying to keep the true crime side of the script play fairly with graphic novel interests that slowly consume the viewing experience. The two atmospheric extremes do not make for a stirring effort, only one that’s disjointed and random, falling short of an exceptional thrill ride with real world consequences.

With laser focus on costuming and set design details, “Gangster Squad” is a sumptuous picture. In fact, the background particulars of the frame are more compelling than the men stomping around in the foreground, playing dress up while Fleischer works out some surprisingly crummy HD cinematography (shades of Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”) and fetishizes the violence, lingering on spent bullet casings and cold acts of intimidation. When played broadly, this type of mayhem is compelling, finding the script by Will Beall aiming for a “Dick Tracy” meets “The Untouchables” vibe at times, following John and the gang as they storm into Cohen businesses ready for a fight, battling scarred henchmen and corrupt cops. Less inviting is the movie’s melodramatic leanings, introducing gravity to the mission as a few of John’s men greet the copper taste of Cohen’s wrath. Sincerity acts like a wet blanket on “Gangster Squad,” slowing the pace and confusing the tone, while dialogue exchanges are tuneless, absent finger-snap timing and period imagination.

Also troubling is the cast, with Penn a particular embarrassment as Cohen, chewing the scenery for no discernible reason, growling and grimacing without any noticeable direction from Fleischer, who leaves the actor alone. Penn’s over-the-top performance would be a kick if there was a film to match it. Alas, “Gangster Squad” doesn’t show a sustained interest in the challenge. As the conflicted moll, Stone doesn’t possess enough va-va-voom femininity for the part, looking miscast in the bombshell role, which is largely decorative. She’s a fine actress, but not quite mature enough, while the entire subplot between Grace and Jerry is underdeveloped, trying to advance on bedroom heat the two don’t exactly generate. Impressive is Enos, who steals the movie as John’s concerned wife, radiating intelligence and confidence with minimal screen time, blossoming with credible emotion in a one-dimensional role. I wish Connie was a member of the squad. She makes for a more convincing knuckle-cracker than any of the stiffs-with-hats assigned to the manhunt.

By the time the final showdown arrives, there’s not much left for “Gangster Squad” to say. The conclusion is anti-climatic, drowning in excessive violence to bring punctuation to the picture, yet there’s no mystery or palpable sense of determination driving the chaos. It’s just mindless, prolonged combat with dreary characters, blandly staged by Fleischer, who never finds a tight grip on the material.

Starring: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick
Director: Ruben Fleischer

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