Friday, January 18, 2013

Movie Review: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer.
Written by: Will Beall based on the book by Paul Lieberman.
Starring: Josh Brolin (Sgt. John O'Mara), Ryan Gosling (Sgt. Jerry Wooters), Emma Stone (Grace Faraday), Sean Penn (Mickey Cohen), Nick Nolte (Chief Parker), Anthony Mackie (Officer Coleman Harris), Robert Patrick (Officer Max Kennard), Michael Peña (Officer Navidad Ramirez), Giovanni Ribisi (Officer Conway Keeler), Sullivan Stapleton (Jack Whalen), Mireille Enos (Connie O'Mara), Troy Garity (Wrevock), James Carpinello (Johnny Stomp), John Aylward (Judge Carter), Jon Polito (Dragna).

Sometimes when I get bored watching a movie, I start to wonder about the actors in the film. Did they know they were making a bad movie? Are they doing things to amuse themselves? I bring this up because as I watched Gangster Squad, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Ryan Gosling knew what a bad movie this was going to turn out to be, and the ridiculous clipped, nasal voice  he uses throughout the film was his way of keeping things interesting for himself. I’m probably completely wrong about that – but no matter what the reason is behind Gosling’s strange vocal tics in the movie, I’m glad he employed them. Because there really is very little in Gangster Squad that held my interest in the least.

The film takes place in 1949 Los Angeles. This is the world that James Ellroy has so vividly captured throughout his career as a novelist – especially in his masterpiece L.A. Confidential (turned into a great movie by Curtis Hanson in 1997). Ellroy’s book crackle with violence and sex, and have perfect, hard boiled dialogue in them. The screenplay for Gangster Squad by Will Beall tries very hard to ape this dialogue, but pretty much gets it all wrong. No one in the movie says anything remotely interesting.

Anyway, it’s L.A. in 1949. Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) a boxer turned mobster has come to L.A. and pretty much runs the town’s criminal enterprise. He even has the gangsters back home in Chicago scared of him. He does what he wants because he has money enough to buy everyone he needs to stay out of his way, and is ruthless enough to kill those who don’t. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is a veteran back from WWII, who fought for “freedom” over there, and hates what he sees becoming of his beloved town. He is seemingly the only honest cop in town. After he roughes up some of Cohen’s men, he is called into the office of the Chief of Police (Nick Nolte) and told to assemble a squad. The Chief wants O’Mara to go to war with Cohen – not to kill him – but drive him out of town with his tail between his legs to serve as a message to everyone else – L.A. is not a mob town.

This is when O’Mara finds out he isn’t the only honest cop in town – there’s at least five others. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is a player who watches out only for himself, but has twin reasons to want to fight Cohen – one being Grace (Emma Stone), Cohen’s “etiquette” coach who he seduces. Harris (Anthony Mackie) is tired of seeing the blacks in L.A. hooked on heroin – and given the chance to help take down the main supplier, he jumps at it. Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) was in army intelligence and is a tech wizard, and wants to tell his kids he fought against the bad men. Kennard (Robert Patrick) seems to have wandered in from a John Ford movie with his six shooter and dialogue. He is trailed around by Navidad Ramirez (Adam Beach), who is a Mexican, and that’s about all you learn about him. Together, these men wage war on Cohen – taking down his business, costing him money, and making him fume the whole time.

The film was directed by Ruben Flesicher, who made the excellent zombie comedy Zombieland a few years ago, and the less than excellent comedy 30 Minutes of Less after that. The style of Gangster Squad is pretty good – this isn’t supposed to be a realistic 1949 LA, but a stylized one. Many critics have compared to the movie (unfavorably) to The Untouchables, and that’s a decent comparison. But I thought more of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), a formative movie for me (I was nine when it came out, and completely blown away). Both movies value style over substance, but at least Beatty’s film was immensely entertaining, with great comic book dialogue, and a cast who knew not to take the whole thing seriously. Gosling gets that to a certain extent here, and his performance is by far the most interesting. It isn’t exactly a good performance, but it’s far from boring. The rest of the cast though is dull. Normally, I like the no-nonsense approach of Josh Brolin. But as O’Mara, he is simply dull. Sean Penn goes wildly over the top as Mickey Cohen – not always a bad thing (see Al Pacino in Dick Tracy), but he’s also a killjoy. When you go that far over the top, you damn well better be fun to watch – and Penn isn’t. I did enjoy Nick Nolte’s performance - mainly because I’m enjoying all the recent Nolte performances, where he spits out one word at a time as if at any moment, he may just keep over and die. Unfortunately, he isn’t in the film very much.

Gangster Squad isn’t a horrible film. Fleischer tries to make it look good, and there are several good shootouts throughout the film. But it does feel like a film that is simply going through the motions. It is devoid of passion – or really any reason to exist. If you’ve seen a lot of gangster movies – and I have – you’ve seen this type of film countless times before, done a whole hell of a lot better.


  1. All flash with zero substance, and a sometimes jarringly uneven flash at that. Shame, too. I was looking forward to this one for a long time. Good review Dave.

  2. Why is Michael Pena listed in the credits as the actor who plays Navidad Ramirez, and then later in the article we find out that it is actually Adam Beach (which I knew anyway, because I'm a fan of Adam Beach). What is going on? Were there two movies made, one with Michael Pena and one with Adam Beach?

  3. Good catch - I didn't notice that before. It's Michael Pena. I get the cast list from IMDB, which lists Pena, and everything else lists Pena as well. I even went back and watch part of the movie to ensure it was Pena. I have no idea why I said it Adam Beach.