REVIEW: Gangster Squad (2013)

Cal has an against the grain opinion on this slick ode to Film Noir from the director of Zombieland. 

Do not watch 2013’s Gangster Squad expecting a meaningful period drama like L.A. Confidential or The Godfather. Rather, this is a hard-hitting, badass gangster action picture with shades of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. No pretensions exist here; director Ruben Fleischer and writer Will Beall simply set out to create a slick, entertaining big-screen cartoon, and they’ve pulled it off with utmost assurance. Gangster Squad does a great job of paying tribute to the Film Noirs of yesteryear as well, with hard-boiled dialogue and characters ripped straight from decades-old gangster films.

In 1949, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is a rising force in the criminal underworld, looking to take control of Los Angeles and kill anyone who gets in his way. Fed up with legal attempts to bring Cohen to justice, L.A.P.D. Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) enlists the aid of decorated war vet and upstanding cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin). John’s assignment is to put together a covert squad of police officers and wage guerrilla warfare against Cohen in an attempt to drive him out-of-town. Recruiting Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Rocky Washington (Anthony Mackie) and Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), the clandestine “gangster squad” begin attacking Cohen’s operations at every turn, halting his flow of drugs, prostitutes and gambling. And because Cohen has half of the L.A. police department in his pocket, Parker gives John permission to act outside the law – no badges, no warrants and no arrests. However, Jerry strikes up a relationship with Cohen’s top girl Grace (Emma Stone) which complicates the situation, while John’s pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) worries about what might happen to her obstinate husband in his mission to bring Cohen down.

Originally slated for a late 2012 release, Gangster Squad was postponed by panicked Warner Bros. executives following the notorious Dark Knight Rises massacre because the film’s climax featured a mass shooting in a cinema. Fearing bad public response, the filmmakers were pulled back in and tasked to completely revamp the final third, rewriting the script and conducting reshoots. With this in mind, it’s surprising to report how cohesive the finished movie truly is – the reshoot seams are not visible even if you look for them. What is problematic, though, is that fragments of the story seem to have been removed in the cutting room. In particular, Jerry and Grace’s relationship feels underdone; they suddenly advance from dalliances to lovers ostensibly living together even though they’re afraid of having a palpable relationship in case Mickey finds out. Added to this, the titular squad needed more dimension. John and Jerry get the most screen-time, while the rest of the guys are relegated to background. The squad’s interactions are pure dynamite and it’s terrific fun to watch them engaged in shootouts, but there’s not enough of either element. As a result, some of the characters feel like wasted opportunities.

Fleischer was also responsible for the unbridled delight that was 2009’s Zombieland, and he brings his competent touch to Gangster Squad as well. In spite of being narratively underdone, the storytelling is surprisingly strong, with Fleischer displaying a firm grasp on pace. The action set-pieces are where the movie truly takes off, though – the shootouts are well-staged, coherent and completely awesome. Gangster Squad wears its R rating on its sleeve, as well. It’s not ultraviolent like a Paul Verhoeven picture, but it does not feel as if any punches are being pulled; when people are shot, bullet hits and blood splashes are visible. It’s fantastically fun. Amid the violence and bloodshed, Fleischer finds time for dark humour as well, which lightens the atmosphere and makes the production more enjoyable. This is a handsomely mounted flick, too, since it carries a slick, stylised look and production values are superb, with detailed costumes and sets.

One of the most notable attributes of Gangster Squad is the cast. Leading the pack is Brolin, who ably fulfils protagonist responsibilities with badass assurance. Gosling, meanwhile, continues to show he’s not just the pretty-boy from The Notebook. He’s a charismatic presence here and he kicks ass with a firearm. As Mickey Cohen, Penn is more or less an over-the-top Batman villain (or maybe Dick Tracy), but he’s enjoyable in the role. Stone plays the token female here, and she does a solid job. Stone is extremely beautiful on-screen and she looks credible in period garb. Out of the squad members, the most notable is former T-1000 Patrick playing an old-fashioned hard-ass with a fast trigger finger, who emanates badassery from every goddamn pore in his body. It’s a shame Patrick is underused, but he has his moments to shine, and said moments are awesome. Nolte also shows up as Chief Parker, while Ribisi is amiable playing the squad’s techie. Rounding out the main players is Peña (End of Watch) and Mackie (the forthcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier), who literally just play the token Latina and the token black guy, respectively. More dimension would have been appreciated, but the actors did a decent job with the material they were given.

It’s impossible to overstate how badass Gangster Squad really is. It may be a historically inaccurate fantasy that stuffy critics and history buffs will hate, and it would’ve been nice if the film was on the same level as The Untouchables which managed to balance excitement with character development, but Gangster Squad is a fine piece of macho, adult action entertainment.

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