Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn and Emma Stone
Review Written By: Michael Dalton (Prime Minister)
Inspired by a true story (Which is movie code for we based everything we made up on one true fact) Gangster Squad follows a team of cops who secretly unite into a guerilla army in order to prevent gangster Mickey Cohen (Played by Sean Penn) from taking over the city of Los Angeles. Gangster Squad is the third directorial effort from Ruben Fleischer who is best known for his debut feature, Zombieland. While Zombieland was a film that was very much aware of and deconstructed the trappings of the genre that it was in (Although not to the extent of the true zombie comedy classic, Shaun of the Dead) Gangster Squad is a film that strictly abides by the conventions and clichés of its genre, doing so without the ironic wink of Fleishcer’s previous output. This conventionality is not necessarily a problem however is rather jarring in relation to Fleishcer’s creative visual style, which is trying very hard to put a sparkly, stylistic sheen on a rather simple and safe story. He reminds me of Zack Snyder (And coming from me, that is a compliment) as a director who has an incredibly dynamic visual style, yet needs a solid script to accompany it in order to make a truly great film. Snyder got one with Watchmen and hopefully got another with Man of Steel, I think Fleishcer is still waiting for his.
You get the feeling that Will Beall (Who wrote this script and is reportedly the man penning Warner Brothers’ Justice League film, something to be slightly concerned about DC fans) was ticking off a checklist while writing this film. The one good cop who is told to stay out of it by all including his wife but can’t? Check. The stylish and skeptical ladies man who is eventually won over? Check. The old gunslinger? Check. Your token technician, ‘geek’ and peacemaker? Check. And of course your token minorities, with Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena (Two actors who I like a lot due to their stunning and underrated work in films such as The Hurt Locker and End of Watch, respectively) playing two characters whose development doesn’t extend beyond black and Mexican. All the characters in this film occupy archetypes and aren’t developed beyond that and when they are, it is in an incredibly clichéd and predictable manner. If you’re looking for originality, surprises and deep characterization, you’re not going to find it in Gangster Squad. My friends and I would literally predict events and be spot-on, with the ending being obvious straight after, if not during, the first scene. What is perhaps more damning however is that a death scene and elements of this film’s conclusion actually drew laughter from the audience, such was its cheesiness. What is perhaps most objectionable about the conclusion is the way in which it unsubtly works in its respect and appreciate your cops message, not a message I disagree with but one that is incredibly clumsily executed.
However while the script may not offer any surprises and have its dialogue be nearly entirely comprised of trailer talk (Every word out of a characters mouth feels like one that was written for the trailer) Ruben Fleischer does provide this film with some originality in the way of his direction. Visually Gangster Squad is a gorgeous movie and from Fleischer’s camera angles, to the 1940s costumes and sets right through to the new Hollywood on-screen hot couple Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, there is plenty of eye candy for everybody in this movie. On the strength of the visuals alone, this film is worth checking out. While at times over-using slow-motion, Fleischer’s handling of a prison shoot-out is inspired with gun shots in the dark creating what are essentially sporadic still photographs of the action. However due to the familiar and flashy nature of this film’s presentation, there is ultimately an emotional vapidity which means that when one of my favourite characters bites the dust, I felt absolutely nothing. There are meant to be high stakes in this film, we’re constantly reminded about how these guys are risking their lives, yet you never feel it.
The actors are the main reason why this film works and under less assured hands, this could have been a much worse film. Josh Brolin is rather one-note in the lead role however is one of those actors who is incredibly believable in whatever role he plays and you completely buy him as the honest cop. Sean Penn is clearly here to pick up the cash and have a fun time doing it as the over the top villain of the piece. However, as with the all the actors, I can’t help but think they could have given him more to do with this role. What we get is an entertaining pantomime villain, what we could have got was something that maintained those factors but added an extra layer of depth and menace. Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi, three of my favourite underrated actors all make the best out of the little they are given. Ribisi in fact gives my second favourite performance of the film and he continues to be one of the best parts of whatever he is in.
My favourite performance however belongs to Ryan Gosling. As he does in Drive, Ryan Gosling just oozes cool and charisma in this film. The man is a true old school movie star and he looks, more than any other actor in the film, right at home in this environment. Every time he is on screen the film gains a level of fun and energy. His chemistry with Emma Stone is well established in previous films however she is given an incredibly thankless role in this film and the relationship between their two characters is incredibly forced, rushed and under-developed. In fact it is almost a microcosm for the whole film, it looks pretty and you enjoy it while it’s happening but it could have been so much more and its substance, or lack of, suffers under more reflection.
However despite its clichés, predictability, plot holes and missed opportunities, I did enjoy watching Gangster Squad. This is a film, which has an unexpectedly playful and cartoonish tone, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and if you bring yourself to its level and accept it for what it is, it’s a very enjoyable experience. There is even one moment of incredibly dark humour involving a drill and a jump cut to a barbecue that was inspired. The film moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t bore you for a second. The small moments of camaraderie between the squad reminded me of films such as Oceans Eleven (This is a film which will remind you of a lot of films that did the same but better) and really made you want to be and feel like one of the guys on this mission.
While watching the film I was constantly thinking about how better this story could have been told on TV. With multiple seasons to really develop Mickey Cohen, his rise in the Los Angeles underworld, the need and formation of the gangster squad, their multiple activities and the nature of their challenge, we could have had one of the best series on the box and something that addressed all the main flaws with this film. However as a flashy, fun piece of forgettable entertainment, Gangster Squad does the job on a Friday night at the end of a long week but it may not stand up to the Sunday afternoon substantial reflections, especially when you’re reminded of other similar and superior films.
Ultimately this review is harsher than I actually feel about Gangster Squad. I like all the actors involved, I enjoyed all of their performances, I was engaged and entertained throughout, and I loved certain scenes and moments. The film is much more visually inventive than it had any right to be and judged on its own terms absolutely succeeds in what it is trying to be, it just so happens that what’s its trying to be doesn’t add up to too much at the end of the day. I can see certain demographics LOVING Gangster Squad (Essentially my demographic, teenage guys) and others HATING Gangster Squad (Those of an older age who aren’t as impressed by the style and want some substance) and while I can understand the origins of both points of view, I’m right in the middle as this film isn’t special enough to love nor bad enough to hate.
By Movie Parliament Prime Minister,
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