A good and pure officer of the law frustrated in his attempts to bring down his city’s top criminal. A vicious kingpin intent on ruling the town through violence and fear. A team assembled to fight back but forced to do so not as cops but as men.
Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is a fantastic movie, isn’t it? The film weaves a story of good and evil, duty and ambition through a vaguely historical lens and comes out the other side with a movie that manages pure pop entertainment secured by serious turns of event, memorable characters and real emotional weight. Ruben Fleischer‘s Gangster Squad wants so badly to straddle that same line, but while it’s a fun, casually entertaining ride it falls flatter than Billy Drago whenever it tries to be more than a bloody and funny cartoon.
Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is a good cop on a tough beat in late ’40s Los Angeles. The streets are awash in violence orchestrated by a Chicago transplant named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), and it seems like every step O’Mara takes forward moves him two back instead. Fearful citizens refuse to testify, fellow cops are on the take and untrustworthy, and his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) at home is begging him to just let it go. But when the chief of police (Nick Nolte) offers him the opportunity to skirt the law and take the fight directly to Cohen, O’Mara jumps at the chance.
One montage later and a ragtag team of dedicated enforcers has been assembled, including one of L.A.’s only honest street cops (Anthony Mackie), a legendary lawman (Robert Patrick), his faithful ethnic sidekick (Michael Peña), and a nerdy family man (Giovanni Ribisi). O’Mara’s friend and fellow Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) has no interest in the crusade preferring instead to focus on his gambling and lady habits, but when Cohen’s bloody reach strikes close to home, he joins the good fight too.
This is a fun flick thanks to a humorous script from Will Beall, some game performances, and a director (alongside cinematographer Dion Beebe) who knows how to shoot and frame some wildly energetic action scenes against a beautifully rendered Los Angeles of old. The movie just looks good, from the set design to the costumes to Fleischer’s beloved slow-motion carnage during some fantastically staged shoot-outs and brawls. It’s also pretty damn funny with one-liners and gags delivered effortlessly by Gosling and friends.
The problems arise when the movie tries to be anything but entertaining, and it’s here where most of the blame falls on Beall’s otherwise funny script. The jokes work, but other parts die a quick and painful death before our eyes. The biggest misfire is a romantic subplot between Wooters and one of Cohen’s dames (Emma Stone) that feels forced, dull, and lacking even an inkling of the chemistry the two shared in Crazy, Stupid, Love. It may be out of her control, but Stone doesn’t help matters by feeling completely inappropriate for the time period. She just doesn’t fit. I blame her eyes.
The film also suffers whenever events turn serious or dark. With one exception that’s saved in the editing, the script’s attempts at emotion and loss just hang limply in the air wearing signs begging for audience reaction, but they just feel obvious and expected instead. Penn’s crime boss Cohen should feel threatening as he commits some truly heinous acts, but it’s impossible to feel genuinely unnerved by him, thanks in equal parts to his facial prosthetics that tease early concept art from Dick Tracy and his channeling of Robert De Niro’s exaggerated mugging as Al Capone.
Speaking of The Untouchables…while few films can claim the label of truly original, it can’t go unnoticed how much of an influence De Palma’s classic really is here. In addition to the entire setup as described in the opening paragraph above there are a couple scenes lifted wholesale along with certain character deaths that match up pretty directly between the films. There are far worse films you could crib from, but still.
Ideally, every movie should be entered free of expectations, but reality doesn’t work that way. In the case of Gangster Squad both the title and the marketing might give viewers the idea that it’s a rough and tumble crime drama with at least some serious intentions, but that’s just not true. Go in expecting a live-action cartoon though, and you’ll be pleased and smiling when you come back out again.
The Upside: Exciting and suspenseful set-pieces; funny dialogue; Josh Brolin and Michael Peña; bloody violence.
The Downside: Simple, obvious and cartoonish; borrows heavily from The Untouchables; Emma Stone doesn’t fit the time period; Ryan Gosling’s voice.
On the Side: An entire action sequence set in a theater was excised from the film and replaced with a Chinatown-set one after the tragic shooting in Aurora, CO last July.