There’s nothing new to Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleisher’s amalgamation of and fetishized love letter to the film noir. Outwardly, there’s little wrong with Fleisher’s approach—the film looks and feels like a theme park noir, approximating the style, tropes, accents, and dames in red dresses of the pulpy, lurid dramas that continue to pump their dark blood through the heart of American culture. The problem here is that, like a theme park attraction, the performers appear to be dead tired, sleepwalking their way through an old-as-dirt story that’s been repeated to the point of boredom. To compensate, Fleisher paints his sets red with the blood of countless goons and has his stars grit their teeth while pulling the trigger. This solves remarkably little.
The story of Mickey Cohen and the Gangster Squad is one of the more thrilling ones in mob canon. At one point in time, Cohen’s mug was capable of selling more papers than anybody in America, and part of his charm (if you can call it that) is that he seemed to genuinely relish his celebrity. He was a complex man, as were those assigned to take him down. Gangster Squad‘s biggest disappointment then, is in how it goes about simplifying the story: Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is a ruthless gangster, John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is an honest cop, and it’s up to O’Mara and his crew of specialized police officers to cripple Cohen’s operations by sabotaging his business interests and murdering his lackeys. The movie spends a lot of time saying that Cohen is a terrible human being, and, to be sure, being the head of a crime syndicate and a vengeful individual gives Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall plenty of opportunity to unleash Penn’s squirmy, seething portrayal of Cohen upon Los Angeles, but he is largely backgrounded, yelling at his crew for being foiled by the Squad and leering at Grace (Emma Stone), his moll.
This leaves the interesting bits up to the Gangster Squad itself, but even given a near two-hour runtime, none of the heroes rise above action figure characterization. O’Mara is chosen to lead the squad because he has special ops training, Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is a jaded ladies man, Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) is the Squad’s connection to the streets, Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is skilled with bugs, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) is the rookie, and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) is the group’s grizzled, six-shooting veteran. We only know anything about O’Mara, Wooters, and Keeler’s lives beyond the percent for the purpose of drawing a basic emotional response when they or (somebody close to them) get murdered or shot at. This happens frequently.
Though hardly surprising considering his background in music videos, Fleischer’s sense of style remains the most potent element of his films. His particular quirks are more self-evident in a movie like Zombieland, whose genre is generally ill-served by gifted directors and given over to a relentless stream of jump scares and attempted gross-out kill scenes. That Zombieland has endured to the point of becoming something of a cult movie is a testament not only to the movie’s famous Bill Murray cameo, but well-conceived bits like the Zombie Kill of the Week and its hero’s Survival Rules, both of which are catnip to .gif-addicted Tumblrphiles. Its only competition (and its better) is Shaun of the Dead. It’s unfair, but Gangster Squad courts danger by inviting comparison to The Untouchables, L.A. Confidential, Casino, and Goodfellas—mafia movies that stand apart from the peers of their era in large part because of how good they look—and loses harshly as a result. Gangster Squad has the look and cast of an Oscar-contending prestige picture. Too bad it’s got the brains and heart of a basic cable time-waster.
Gangster Squad. With Josh Brolin (Sgt. John O’Mara), Ryan Gosling (Sgt. Jerry Wooters), Sean Penn (Mickey Cohen), Emma Stone (Grace Faraday), Nick Nolte (Bill Parker), Anthony Mackie (Det. Coleman Harris), Giovanni Ribisi (Det. Conwell Keeler), Michael Peña (Det. Navidad Ramirez), and Robert Patrick (Det. Max Kennard). Directed by Ruben Fleischer and produced by Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, and Michael Tadross. Screenplay by Will Beall, based on the book Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, The Mob, and the Battle For Los Angeles by Paul Lieberman.