Film Reviews

Gangster Squad Retells the Stories of Better Movies

Originally slated to open last September, Gangster Squad was delayed when the movie-theater shooting in Colorado, suddenly made a scene of gunfire in Grauman's Chinese Theatre "inappropriate." Four months later, a turn in the film's plot that relies on gunning down an adolescent risks recalling Newtown, but the proximity of headlines scarcely matters — released on any day of the year, Gangster Squad would be a crime against cinematic sensibility.

As Gangster Squad opens, boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), well on his way to establishing an empire of vice, is the snake in the West Coast Eden of prosperous Los Angeles circa 1949. Setting the scene in voiceover is LAPD Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), an ex-commando-turned-supercop, introduced in merciless but futile action against Cohen's agents — O'Mara's efforts are stymied by crook-coddling legal malarkey like arrest warrants. Naturally, he's eager to ditch the badge and step outside the law when Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) offers him the chance to put together an unofficial unit to bust up Cohen's rackets.

The team includes Robert Patrick as a six-shooter-packing Old West holdover and Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña as tokenized black and Hispanic ambassadors. The only one given a storyline is Ryan Gosling's Sergeant Jerry Wooters, who has been keeping his sense of duty catatonic with drink and women.

Wooters takes up with Cohen's arm candy, who's granted no additional depth by Emma Stone; this gives Gosling occasion to ply his shy-heartthrob trade, the swollen-cheeked, sheepish little boy champing to show off his cantaloupe biceps. It would be the film's silliest performance were it not for Penn donning a pound of putty to play Cohen. His ex-boxer's smushed mug makes him something like a Dick Tracy villain.

Shot by Dion Beebe and digitally touched up with the lurid palette of a pulp cover, Gangster Squad on occasion suggests the better movie it might have been. This is especially true when it toys with the hyper-reality of showbiz law enforcement, in which cops pose as cowboys, and thugs make believe they're Famous Monsters of Filmland. It also gives lip service to more rote themes: "Can you remind me of the difference between us and them?" the vigilante squad's techie, played by Giovanni Ribisi, pauses to ask Brolin, who's later called to muse that, given his strong-arm tactics, he "might as well be Mickey Cohen." This is meant to pass for moral-gray-area thematic complexity, though in practice, it only helps Gangster Squad be simultaneously tawdry and blandly apologetic about it.

All of the usual cop-opera conceits — "duty," "badge of honor," "fraternity" — will be trotted out, but it's only the pummeling violence that stirs Fleischer's interest. With little pause, Gangster Squad caroms from crime to retaliation, from Tommy-gun assassination to heroin-shipment rundown, from a power drill through the head to a pistol-whipping, each fresh bloodletting hyped by Steve Jablonsky's score or peppy period tunes counterpoised for ironic effect. In reducing the great themes of the Warner Bros. crime-film legacy to so many bases to be rounded, Gangster Squad desecrates the symbols of the movies it alleges to homage, in the process making a once-great language banal.

It's obvious that screenwriter Will Beall is mostly drawing on his experience with other movies, particularly the previous generation of revisionist period crime dramas, films like Brian De Palma's 1987 The Untouchables, which Gangster Squad's plot hews close to, and Curtis Hanson's 1997 L.A. Confidential. Unlike Hanson's film, which had a shoe-leather realism, Gangster Squad looks as if all its details — each shiny Packard and bottle of Orange Nehi — have been scrupulously "placed," still warm from the art department, while panoramic shots recall no terrestrial city so much as the virtual environments of Rockstar Games' L.A. Noire.

Chief Parker insists there's a "war for the soul" of this L.A., but it's just a neon haze of pixels — while the lazy, trashy Gangster Squad is damning physical evidence that the war for the soul of Hollywood is in a bad way.— Nick Pinkerton

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Nick Pinkerton
Contact: Nick Pinkerton