Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Written by Will Beall; Based on the book by Paul Lieberman
Starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte, and Sean Penn
Rated R for strong violence and language
Running Time of 113 Minutes
Gangster Squad is a ridiculous movie, a fact that is emphasized not only by the title but by the identity of the director. I do not mean to impugn Ruben Fleischer (I love Zombieland quite a bit), but rather to suggest that thus far in his career he has not struck me as a man interested in crafting serious film. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; entertainment and fun in cinema is absolutely vital. And entertainment is certainly the name of the game here. Gangster Squad fetishizes style to an almost extreme degree. Comparisons to Brian De Palma are apt, not only because this film bears a resemblance to The Untouchables but also because the film’s rampant use of slow motion seems inspired by the director’s work. When Gangster Squad fails, it’s a bit of a juvenile and tonal mess. When it does work, it is a decent piece of pulp, with bullets flying and blood flowing.
Rarely has a movie been more aware of the fact that it is a movie. The opening of the film informs us that this is “inspired by a true story” (and it is), but Fleischer has no intention of painting an intelligent or thoughtful portrait of these LAPD cops. Instead, the film plays out like a comic book version of what this story would be. (Yes, Dick Tracy undoubtedly comes to mind.) Characters pose, spew excessive one-liners, and are very clearly interested in looking cool. The costume design by Mary Zophres is terrific and these actors look dashing in classic hats and suits. The production design by Maher Ahmad is appealing, but it certainly favors a cartoonish approach as opposed to realism. Visually there’s no doubt that the film has much to admire, and the aforementioned slow motion and the choreography of the many shoot outs is well done. Dion Beebe has shot a colorful and fluid film, but there are undoubtedly times where it is too clear that the movie was shot on video. The Arri Alexa is a great camera, but under low light the grain of video becomes clear and when matched with the time period of the film it becomes somehow uncinematic.
Josh Brolin and especially Ryan Gosling both make for dashing and charming 1940s cops. As John O’Mara and Jerry Wooters, respectively, each actor delivers a movie star performance that emphasizes good looks and charisma over depth. This works perfectly for the film, and Flesicher and his team have a field day emphasizing how good Gosling looks in the 40s garb. Once again Gosling gets to prove what great chemistry he has with Emma Stone, who is lovely and demure. The rest of the squad is given significantly less to do, and talented and diverse actors such as Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, and Robert Patrick are archetypes as opposed to characters. As the gangster that this squad so tirelessly chases, Mickey Cohen, Sean Penn chews the scenery as only he can. Penn is explosive, angry, and ridiculous, and he more than anyone is clear what type of film this is.
There are moments when Gangster Squad attempts to outdo its breadth. We explore O’Mara’s home life, and although Mireille Enos is good as his wife, these moments exist in tonal juxtaposition to the film’s action tendencies and it brings the film to a complete halt. While I understand the desire to explore the morality of these cop’s actions or the sacrifices they have to make, moments such as these or with Giovanni Ribisi’s Conway Keeler lack meaning and effect. These moments are not overbearing, though, and for the most part the film gets to do with it wants to with a fair amount of conviction. There is a certain juvenile undercurrent running through this film; it enjoys the violence and style perhaps a bit too much, and I did leave wishing I had explored this true story with more insight. Putting all of that aside, there is much to enjoy here if taken as what it is and wants to be: superficial pleasure.