Gangster Squad (2013) stands at the intersection of three movies: L.A. Confidential (1997), The Untouchables (1987), and Dick Tracy (1990). Damn, that must have sounded awesome in the pitch room. “Wait, and you’re telling me we’ve got Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn?” asks the producer. “We’ve got an action Oscar [trademark pending] on our hands!” The question on that producer’s mind (presumably sometime last October) was where did it all go wrong? “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
After World War II, GIs came back to an America they didn’t recognize. They fought the Axis powers to defend a pure America of hope and possibility. In Los Angeles, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a psychotic mob boss, hopes to take complete control with the sky as the limit. Police Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is the one straight cop in LA with a burning desire to bring Cohen down. He gets his chance when Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) asks O’Mara to put together a squad, off the books with a license to kill, to destroy Cohen’s organization so that neither Cohen nor his flunkies can gain a foothold in LA.
O’Mara, with the help of his wife Connie (Mireille Enos), pick the team. Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) a handsome, easy-going policeman who’s jaded, but with a kernel of virtue (and a love interest in Mickey Cohen’s etiquette teacher Grace (Emma Stone)). Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a Black officer who is a one-man army against the heroin industry in his community. Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) who’s a cop from another generation, with a wild-west attitude and wild-west right arm. With him comes Latino officer Natividad Ramirez (Michael Peña). Finally, Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is an ex-intelligence officer and the team’s tech guru. So what’s the plan, Jack? Take ’em down.
Gangster Squad has a lot of plot and only two hours to pack it into. I mean, what do we need? Peril for Grace, an explosion, three menacing Cohen scenes, a drive-by on O’Mara’s house, another explosion, four slow-motion gun battles, five not-slow-motion gun battles, a big win, a big loss, and a final showdown. What there doesn’t seem to be much time for is setting the atmosphere, giving the characters room to breathe, or developing any sense of individual style.
The more I think on the three movie comparisons I set out at the front the more frustrating it becomes, because it’s painfully accurate. It’s the spirit of L.A. Confidential without its focus or intelligence. It’s the story line of The Untouchables but without its clarity of purpose or ability to create a personally menacing baddie. It’s the style of Dick Tracy but too held back by its desire to be real-ish and a much stronger blood-thirst. There was too much promised and too little attempted. And what a great starting point! It would be the action movie counterpoint to the upcoming The Great Gatsby (2013). That certainly was how it was billed.
The trailer was terribly misleading. Let’s watch that trailer again. Mmm. So good. Well, for one thing, Steve Jablonsky does the painfully conservative score and there’s very little intrusion into that, let alone Jay-Z. I looked up “Who does music to Gangster Squad trailer?” The first hit is an article titled “Would ‘Gangster Squad‘ Have Benefitted From a Little More Hip-Hop?” You also see some visual akin to The Green Hornet (2011), which had little more to offer, but in Gangster Squad might have been interesting.
At 2:07 in the trailer, Gosling’s face promises depth. New lesson for handlers of The Gosling, he can only be quiet and cool if you give him the time and space to show something more. Neither he nor anyone else gets that time. They were too intent on setting up gun battles. This needed a strong injection of film noir. Something, anything to calm down the action and let these highly accomplished actors work. Cohen does a lot of dreadful things in this movie, mostly including killing his own gangsters. Pretty scary stuff. But they also make him a boxer. In The Untouchables, De Niro gets maybe three or four scenes and yet is five times more ominous than Penn ever does despite having twice as many scenes and three times as many psychotic rampages. It isn’t the acting, it’s the selection. De Niro is an all-powerful wizard above the fray and rarely shows himself. Gangster Squad brings Cohen in as a loose cannon who is constantly on-site to do dirty jobs and shout at people. This guy doesn’t run LA, you think, he’s too much of a micro-manager.
In the last five minutes, it commits a heinous crime. Throughout, there is a kind of realism vibe. Let’s put to one side the gun battles that are so rarely realistic because that’s general movie-logic. Mickey Cohen was a real guy and any self-respecting person has seen L.A. Confidential and knows that Mickey Cohen goes away for tax evasion (it’s how that movie begins). Here–and excuse the spoiler, but like the trailer says, they aren’t solving a case, they’re going to war–Grace will eventually inform on Cohen for a murder she witnessed, the Squad strong arms an otherwise corrupt judge into signing the warrant, and Cohen goes to Alcatraz for murder. Bogus. And knowing the reality only shielded my brain from seeing how painfully contrived the loose-end tying actually was.
A quick word on the dialogue from writer Will Beall. He’s got a lot of old-timey sayings in there that could be cool if only he didn’t drop them in like he’s constructing a birthday cake. Part of the problem is that the actors deliver these lines as if they’re meant to be serious. People don’t say “LOL” with a straight face. It’s just one of those things.
Shame on director Ruben Fleischer for not creating or demanding more style and for turning up the speed way beyond what the plot could handle. Shame on writer Will Beall for failing to understand that he wasn’t writing an extended episode of Castle (2009-11). This movie would have been good twenty years ago, now it’s just mediocre. I suspect that’s why it’s received such a poor reaction. The actors and the director involved created an untenable expectation. They should have pushed this movie into March. With the Oscar nominations–my take on that–the comparison with those titles makes Gangster Squad look even worse than it is.