Synopsis: Los Angeles, 1949. Ruthless, Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the show in this town, reaping the ill-gotten gains from the drugs, the guns, the prostitutes and-if he has his way-every wire bet placed west of Chicago. And he does it all with the protection of not only his own paid goons, but also the police and the politicians he has under his thumb. It’s enough to intimidate even the bravest, street-hardened cop…except, perhaps, for the small, secret crew of LAPD outsiders led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who come together to try to tear Cohen’s world apart.
Release Date: January 11, 2013 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Action, Gangster
There’s something about the noir genre that, when done right, just works so well. Combining colorful characters with intense shootouts, these tales of hardboiled detectives and femme fatales become testaments to a bygone era of cinema. Gangster Squad, the new film from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, is not such a movie, although it almost gets away with a passable impersonation.
Set in 1949, Gangster Squad tells the alleged true story of the Los Angeles Police Department’s last stand against Mickey Cohen, a New York transplant that has created deep criminal roots in the city of angels. Up against Cohen is a small band of L.A.P.D. detectives – the last honest detectives in a town filled with corruption – led by John O’Mara (Josh Brolin). O’Mara, a WWII vet, is a conflicted and tortured soul, but we know this only because Brolin tells us so. Furthermore, O’Mara’s “squad” is filled with every stereotype or cliched character under the sun, from the elderly gunslinger to the nerdy electronics specialist, all who provide a certain element to the film, but fail to justify their existence.
Therein lies the rub with Gangster Squad; everything in the film exists because it needed to. Brolin is a stubborn detective with a skewed sense of honor because that is apparently what men who returned from the war were like. His confidant, Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), has a way with the ladies because, well, there needed to be a love story somewhere. Don’t expect there to be any sort of chemistry or reason behind the blossoming relationship between Wooters and Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), though, because there’s none to be found. They simply wake up in bed, and the audience is supposed to believe they have fallen in love despite the fact that Faraday is Cohen’s leading lady.
When characters aren’t providing necessary exposition or establishing some thinly veiled connections between each other, they’re involved in some pretty tense shootouts. And by tense I mean that they lack any sort of stakes, but hey it’s people shooting at each other or ramming each other with cars, so that has to count for something. Unfortunately there’s little to no sense of danger, and to make matters worse the action sequences are pretty boring.
To be fair, Gangster Squad isn’t an unwatchable film, it’s just far too formulaic to be seen as anything but a mindless action flick. The story goes from predictable story beat to predictable story beat without so much as a detour, and to make matters worse most of those beats are telegraphed long before the characters get there. For the amount of talent involved I certainly expected something better than this.
Very early on Gangster Squad establishes itself as a film where the actors are given carte blanche to chew the scenery. Both Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen and Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters, in particular, are played with the subtlety of a Tommy gun. Gosling’s jive-talking delivery (accent?) is especially off-putting, although it becomes less grating as the film goes on. It’s really only Josh Brolin – from the main squad – that feels like he isn’t some sort of noir parody. I’d like to mention Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, and Anthony Mackie – because they’re three great actors – but I would only have bad things to say.
But then there’s an added layer that can be attributed to the film, a pseudo-self awareness that suggests all parties involved were hamming-it-up on purpose. To think that Sean Penn is well aware that he looks like a Dick Tracy villain and delivering his lines as such does make sense, but at the same time that calls into question whether the film is an homage or a parody. So if you buy into the theory that the actors, and by extension the director, were going for a film with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek then you can find the performances somewhat forgivable. The boring and lackluster story on the other hand, not so much.
As the name suggests, the noir genre is prone to stark use of shadow and contrast, and for the most part director Ruben Fleischer does well to deliver a film that is visually appealing. At times the filmmaking does call attention to itself – especially in its use of speed ramping to heighten the action – but it’s not terribly bothersome, and won’t be noticeable to everyone. And there are occasionally some stylistic choices, like a sequence that uses muzzle flashes to freeze the frame, that give their associated scenes some added flair.
However, there is one sequence in particular where the cinematography – namely the use of digital cameras – calls so much attention to itself that it almost ruins what is a very important scene. Like The Hobbit‘s HFR, this use of digital is wholly distracting and makes the scene almost look phony. It doesn’t last for long, mind you, but like I said it does take away from a pretty important scene and is absolutely worth mentioning.
As a big fan of the noir genre and what talented Directors of Photography can do within it I was hoping for more from Gangster Squad, but what I got was a film that benefits from the use of modern techniques as much as it suffers.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Ruben Fleischer
- Screenwriter(s): Will Beall
- Cast: Sean Penn (Mickey Cohen)Josh Brolin (Sgt. John O’Mara)Ryan Gosling (Sgt. Jerry Wooters) Emma Stone (Grace Faraday)Nick Nolte (Chief Parker)Josh Pence (Officer Darryl Gates)Anthony Mackie (Officer Coleman Harris)Michael Pena (Officer Navidad Ramirez)Giovanni Ribisi (Officer Conway Keeler)
- Editor(s): Alan Baumgarten
- Cinematographer: Dion Beebe
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score: Steve Jablonsky
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA