A gritty but half-hearted swing at a noir-influenced mob movie, Gangster Squad feels like it should be much better than it actually is. It has the blockbuster cast, the graphic violence and the over-the-top acting to deliver the admirable B-movie goods, but something about Ruben Fleischer’s approach turns this into a rather weak sauce.
The movie is one of those period pieces, somewhat covering the real life activities of Mickey Cohen and his gang as they worked to dominate Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s. The titular team is a group of cops who worked without badges and legal precedent to make life difficult for Cohen and his gang, but their plans are more anarchic than effective.
Sean Penn stars as Cohen, a maniacal mobster and former boxer hell-bent on ruling LA and forcing out his Chicago rivals. The police have been trying to stop him for years, but have been unable to curb his enthusiasm. Enter Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) and his big idea of bringing in a squad to handle Cohen without the use of the law. Parker enlists Sgt. O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put the crew together.
O’Mara seeks out various personalities, including the womanizing Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), the detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), the legend Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and the wire tapper Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). The crew works to put the screws on Cohen, but their lack of organization and effective planning causes more than a few hitches.
Because it’s required in movies like this, there’s also a femme fatale in the form of Emma Stone’s Grace Faraday. She is Cohen’s girlfriend of sorts and represents the forbidden fruit for Wooters, putting the crew in a remarkable position. But like most of the characters of Gangster Squad, she is underdeveloped and uninteresting.
The pile of A-list talent in this 2013 film should be enough to overrule most mistakes in the writing department, at least theoretically, but it just doesn’t happen. The reedy, squelchy, obtuse characters are too pitifully flavourless for a movie that boasts the sort of image and violence that Gangster Squad does.
In the right hands, this would have been a quality B-movie. It has the grit and violence to do the job, even if it remains vague when it comes to characterization and overall plot. It could’ve sunk its teeth in as a reasonable period piece, committed to rehearsing an airborne James Cagney gangster picture.
But in the hands of Fleischer, who brought us Zombieland, this flick thrashes about trying to find its weight. It remains an insignificant instance of being almost there, a short-armed swing at good movie-making that can’t quite find its measure. As good as Gangster Squad should be, it just doesn’t muster much of interest throughout its 113 minutes.
So sure, this picture boasts the talents of Penn, Brolin and Gosling. And it has some surprising, if not joyful violence. But it wastes its femme fatale storyline with a miscast Stone and flounders around with weak connective tissue, remaining a lumbering and entirely run-of-the-mill effort. It should be better, but it’s not.