Second Opinion – Gangster Squad (2013)

Gangster Squad, 2013.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer.
Starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte and Josh Pence.

Gangster Squad movie poster


In 1940s LA, a group of incorruptible police officers band together to stop an up and coming mafia boss. Throwing aside due process and badges and replacing them with bullets and anonymity, their violent ways lead to a war for the West Coast.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in Gangster Squad

It’s strange that in noir movies, LA’s always portrayed as morally bankrupt. Beautiful but deadly. You’d think that Hollywood would want to portray itself better. But then there’s the promise that perhaps you yourself could join in the party, that you could become a free willing smart aleck who doesn’t pay attention to the rules. The mystery is always what’s bought me to noir, both the mystery of the crime and the characters themselves. And that’s exactly what Gangster Squad tries to ape.

Other classic noir traits are set up. Along with the setting itself and the cynical characters, there’s the femme fatale Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and gangster boss (Sean Penn). Snapping and smart dialogue throughout the first act creates a wry and kinda funny first twenty minutes. I was prepared for an interesting movie, an all-out film noir, perhaps harking back to the days of Robert Mitchum and the like.

Then I realised it’s probably more relative to The Untouchables, a movie it can’t help but be compared to because of the nature of the story. A team of hard-as-nails police officers attempting to stop a crime boss from taking over anything and everything. It does seem, actually, that Gangster Squad is an Untouchables for a new generation. This is only a review of one of them, mind, so take that however you will.

The production values are top notch pretty much all round. Production, art and set design all deserve special mention, as well as costuming, with the recreation of the noir 40s LA near perfection. The look of the film doesn’t exactly lend itself to film noir, however, with a vaguely generic sheen that suggests director Ruben Fleischer hasn’t quite found a signature style yet.

The glitz and glamour are on display, so it’s fitting the cast are who they are. Every actor fits into their part well, whether it’s Josh Brolin’s earnest, do-gooding but above all soldier of a man John O’Mara or Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters, a pretty-boy with a pessimist’s outlook.

The performances in Gangster Squad are all understated (except Penn’s, more on him in a bit). Just like a noir movie they are never trying too hard on the surface. Unfortunately, none of the actors are really given anything substantial to work their way through. Like the movie itself, the characters start out as interesting, with the promise of more underneath. But it soon turns out there isn’t and it eventually falls into the trap of being all plot and no character development.

The people we find in the story are never given more than a minimal backstory. It’s like if the minor characters from the X-Men franchise got bored and decided to travel back in time to fight crime. You’ve got defining characteristics such as ‘good at aiming’ and ‘good at throwing knives’. We never delve too far into John O’Mara’s times in the war or the reasons Jerry Wooters fell out of love with his job, his city and himself. It’s a service that the characters were given something as opposed to just being there, but I was just craving a bit more substance amongst the acres of style on display.

It’s this substance that could’ve been used to create a more morally ambiguous set of characters. Along with all the other classic noir traits, another promise of broken people in a harsh city is set up but not really followed through.

I’m not craving another ‘it’s better because it’s darker’ story, because we have enough of those already and more still to come, but the cynical nature of noir easily gives its characters a certain amount of coolness. What made Philip Marlowe entertaining was his sly and world-weary nature. John O’Mara’s somehow naïve hero wins the day because what starts out as noir ends up as an action film, with heroes saving the girl and punching the bad guy in the face.

It’s because of this blunt sequence of events that emotional heft is lost. And if an action scene is going to be included, at least don’t make its major plus point an advancement of plot. There was, at least for me, no excitement during the car chases or fight scenes. They were put together well enough, but had neither exhilaration or tension, nor heart racing moments, to be considered special.

Sean Penn is quite the revelation. In between bouts of brooding and simmering near the top of the pan, his Mickey Cohen displays meanness and bravado in equal amounts. Cohen’s pride takes over the screen and is his defining trait, his like for the easy life beaten only by his constant push for progress. As a retired ex-boxer turned mafia boss, Penn exudes menace and the promise of violence at almost every turn. Intensity is probably a word that can be applied equally to the character of Mickey Cohen as well as Sean Penn, so it’s not a surprise Penn’s is easily the most entertaining and eye-catching performance.

Unfortunately, Gangster Squad is nothing more than eye catching. The lack of substance is the thing, with a lacking in the development of character and relationships between them. Interesting ideas are introduced but then dropped, in favour of vaguely cliché beats and stock character moments. It’s a missed opportunity that’s entertaining at the time, but unmemorable almost as soon as the lights come up.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★

Matt Smith

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