Being bumped from an awards friendly September release date to the month where films go to die, ostensibly on account of post-Aurora reshoots, should have been warning enough that all was not well with Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad. Yet, despite a stellar cast, a blistering, old fashioned ‘true’ story of gangsters, tommy guns, glamorous molls and dapper brogues, no amount of reshoots could have salvaged this muddled romp through crime ridden post war LA.
It’s 1949 in the city of angels and maniacal east coast mob moss Mickey Cohen (a hammy Sean Penn) is busy establishing his nefarious empire with an iron and very bloody fist. With most of the town’s cops and judiciary in the pay of Cohen and his mob, it’s left to wartime hero and honest cop Sgt John O’Mara (a surly and staid Josh Brolin) to stand up to Cohen et al.
With co-leads of the calibre of Penn and Brolin, one might expect this heavyweight duo to deliver an enthralling tête-à- tête, but a combination of Will Beall’s decidedly dodgy script and a pair of woefully misjudged performances ensure otherwise. Beall is evidently indebted to The Untouchables as his screenplay closely apes David Mamet’s masterpiece, but there is such a marked gulf in quality that comparisons should end there.
With the ruthless Cohen running riot, O’Mara is charged by gruff police chief Bill Parker (a snarling Nick Nolte) to clean shop and run the east coast upstart out of town. Cue the compilation of an off book crew of misfit and renegade cops outside the sway of the gangsters and bent coppers who are determined to put LA to rights.
Key amongst this mob which includes veteran gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), naïve rookie Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) and tech guy Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is de facto right hand man Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a laid back detective who just wants to keep his nose clean. Sporting a honeyed lilt that lacquers every scene in silky syrup, Gosling bosses it whilst delivering a nonchalant, virtually horizontal performance, seducing Cohen’s dame Grace Farraday (the ever delectable Emma Stone) with barely a whisper.
From here on in we’re on irritatingly familiar ground as the motley crew fudge their way through their first bust in a far from slick operation, before getting their act together and breaking some gangster skulls. But Fleischer’s awkward direction, replete with apparently comedic cut sequences (a brutal execution to a barbecue springs to mind) and Beall’s hackneyed dialogue ensure that this transition is tonally off kilter.
One minute we have Brolin’s uber serious O’Mara lamenting the moral corruption of Cohen’s crew and the next we have the gangster squad spraying bullets all over downtown, which is you know ok because these are the good guys. Jarring things further are some sloppy moments of seemingly unintentional hilarity that only serve to disrupt the story, with Penn’s over the top pastiche, apparently based on Dick Tracy’s Flattop, the main offender.
Brolin must bear the brunt of some of the blame too, as whilst Penn camps it up to the hilt, Brolin confusingly opts to play things bafflingly straight. His bullish, honour at all costs steadfastness means he ends up resembling a wooden GI Joe type, so determined to rid the world of Cohen that he’s willing to risk it all, pregnant wife included.
As events unfold as expected, Fleischer does shows sporadic flair; the neat use of lighting in a prison break out and a Frank Miller esque car chase particular highlights. It looks great too, with Dennis Gassner’s production design and Albert Wolsky’s costume design noteworthy, but none of this is enough to make up for the glaring shortcomings of Beall’s script. Criminally he under develops the characters of the rest of the squad to the extent that it’s difficult to care about their uncertain fates, whilst Stone is underused to the extent that she resembles little more than a very pretty plot device.
All in, Gangster Squad resembles an uneven amalgamation of the cartoonish camp of Dick Tracy and the brutal drama of the likes of Bugsy or The Untouchables, ultimately failing to successfully marry the best of these two genres together. It’s woefully and frustratingly flawed, but that said and barring the horrible ending, there’s actually a lot of fun to be had.