It seems gun control is stepping back to the forefront for many Americans, which makes a film like “Gangster Squad” all the more timely. Its theatrical release was, after all, impacted by the movie theater violence that took place in Aurora, Colorado during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” But despite several more months waiting for “Gangster Squad” and its awfully recognizable actors to take us away on a rock ‘em, sock ‘em mid-20th century adventure, the film falls short of expectations for several reasons, all of them fundamental on one level or another.
Movies like “Gangster Squad” are often aggressively marketed, loud and short on a foundation that will provide the title with necessary stability to entertain an audience while simultaneously keeping its attention (these two things are not one in the same). As I learned more about “Gangster Squad,” my sixth sense lit up, only to be quieted by the reassurance that names like Sean Penn and Nick Nolte were signed on, surely to anchor things and offer critical grounding. Also offering piece of mind were historical contexts, including a screenplay by Will Beall based on the novel Tales of the Gangster Squad, (which, coincidentally, was written by executive producer Paul Lieberman) as well as a recognizable bad guy in Mickey Cohen (he did time at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay). I hoped “Gangster Squad,” especially considering the most modern filmmaking tools would be at director Ruben Fleischer’s disposal, would be worth watching.
In the end, I found “Gangster Squad” to be entertaining, but not to the point where I wanted, or needed, to pay close attention to get the gist of things. Some folks over act; others underwhelm. The script is banal at best and uninteresting at worst. Collectively, one leaves feeling like they experienced something decent that could have been far better.
Los Angeles, 1949. Ruthless, Brooklyn-born mob king Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the show, 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 cops. Except for a 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.
“Gangster Squad” does a creative job balancing the multiple plot lines it prioritizes. Cohen and his iron fist rule over LA are at center stage, of course, but at stage left is Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who ping pongs between Cohen and Wooters with ease. At stage right is O’Mara’s pregnant and reluctant wife Connie (Mireille Enos), who probably gives the film’s most level headed and deepest performance. Back stage are the other top cops O’Mara identifies to help him take down Cohen, including straight as an arrow Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), brains and tech guy Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), old school gangster-killer extraordinaire Max Kennard (Robert Patrick…who I didn’t recognize until I saw his name scrolling during the credits) and young gun Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). After O’Mara gets the thumbs up from police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), he sets to work on taking down Cohen by any means necessary.
If you wished, you could invest some time and energy in analyzing the mildly complex relationships between characters in “Gangster Squad.” There are elements from “Casablanca” here, as well as a little “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In its simplest form, “Gangster Squad” is a good versus evil story, but you could find more to analyze if you desired. It’s hard, however, to find that desire with a lacking script and some hollow performances.
Characters essentially state the obvious throughout the film’s 113-minute run time, save for a few sharp one-liners that Patrick’s character drops every now and again. Gosling begins the film so apathetic and uninteresting that it’s very difficult to take anything he says with even the slightest seriousness during the film’s second half. Stone essentially has one job: look sexy. Lucky for her she’s good at it. In fact, my girlfriend remarked that more audiences would have favorably responded to “Gangster Squad” if both Stone and Gosling had just shown a lot more skin. Brolin is reasonably strong in the lead role, but his performance juxtaposed with Penn’s force the pair into direct competition. Rather than complement each other and push one another to be better, these male leads both look to be working so hard to land their role on a target’s bulls eye so the other has to settle for second place.
There are a few bright spots, however. I think especially of Enos and her grounding impact on her overly dedicated and good-doing husband. She kicks him in the pants for fun and offers his character something (and someone) to battle for. While her role isn’t a large one, it is significant. The film’s look is also admirable, with costumes, lighting, sets and props helping to generate the necessary image, but not so much so that you’re completely convinced you aren’t watching a movie. “Gangster Squad” feels as though it has been intentionally over-stylized, and now, every time I think of this era, I’ll likely envision a tight fitting fedora, side arm six shooters that never seem to run completely through a clip and a sultry red head in a Jessica Rabbit-esque red dress.
While I truly believe there is more to like here than there is to dislike, the things that are on the chopping block for disliking are so prominent that they tilt the title into an all too largely populated chute: good, but not great. “Gangster Squad” won’t teach audiences anything new about a dynamic era in criminal history, and it won’t be a go to tile for film instructors to reference as they passionately try to engage their up and coming students. It will, however, earn a place on my shelf as one of those guilty pleasure titles that you pop in occasionally just because you need to see something that isn’t earth shatteringly good or horrifically bad.
It seems everyone had a vice during this era, and even those with good ones were occasionally tainted with blood. This said, “Gangster Squad” does an okay job arguing that when the good guys need to be bad guys, they do so with the best of intentions and a willingness to accept the worst possible consequences. Does this justify their actions? Maybe, and maybe not. It does mean that perspective and experience come to bear with some frequency, and that, in some instances, desperate times to truly warrant desperate measures.
Read into “Gangster Squad” at the level you desire. Just know that, depending on your chosen areas of emphasis, you may hit the bottom of the well sooner than you anticipate.
Warner Bros. has done solid work with the film’s 2.40:1 1080p High Definition video transfer to Blu-ray disc. The image is sharp, clear and vivid all the way through, and I appreciated the way this helps to add to the important visuals in any title that is set in a specific time period. A weakness is the film’s coloration, with a somewhat dark tint taking the lead all the way through. Brights do not pop with life during “Gangster Squad,” which doesn’t seem surprising given that it’s a more or less dark film, but even natural light seems subdued and lacking a bit. Make no mistake, the transfer is very good, but the coloration isn’t top tier.
For the most part, the film’s soundtrack, a DTS-High Definition Master Audio English 5.1 option, is audible with no difficulty. The dialogue is occasionally jumbled, but I suspect that’s because of the person uttering the words more so than anything else. Maybe it’s me, but I didn’t detect the gunfire in “Gangster Squad” to sound as loud as similar sounds in other select titles. Thankfully, natural background noise sort of offsets, as car doors closing, zippo lighters being flicked and footsteps clanging on the pavement open up the sound. Additional options include French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digitals, while subtitle offerings include English, French and Spanish.
I suppose my expectations were a bit higher. We’re offered a director’s audio commentary, a few featurettes, an image gallery and some deleted scenes. Nothing groundbreaking here, unfortunately. This particular edition of “Gangster Squad” is a Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet combo pack, however, so go make a friend after you’ve made a purchase.
A Final Word:
Recognizable names can’t save “Gangster Squad.” The can, and in some cases, do, make it better, but not enough so that the entire film benefits. Even though it is somewhat fun to watch, it can be more frustrating than anything else.