Remember when gangster movies used to be cool? Playing it straight, revelling in the joy an audience can take from the unscrupulous choices of others, gangster movies from Scarface (no, not that one, the good one) to Goodfellas play almost as important a role in the makeup of American culture as the Western.
And look, here comes a gangster movie that is not only harking back to the greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood but is also trying to be cool! And guess what? It’s really not. At all.
Gangster Squad, from the capable director of Zombieland, Ruben Fleischer, is loosely based on the crusade of an off-the-books police unit in crime-riddled Los Angeles circa 1949. As the film begins a dissatisfied mob boss has a fellow gangster tied to two cars and ripped in two. It’s almost a metaphor for what this film has done to the gangster movie.
Josh Brolin takes on the Dirty Harry role as Sargeant John O’Mara, a tough cop who performs his work like WWII is still ongoing. He rescues a would-be movie starlet from some pimps, but when he takes them in finds they can’t be booked because he didn’t have a warrant. There’s no justice in L.A., as O’Mara sees it. No one ever mentions the fact he tore off a man’s hand in an elevator shaft during said bust.
Since real-life Jewish American gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has most of the city in his pocket, the police commissioner (Nick Nolte) orders Brolin to assemble a team of incorruptible cops, Mission: Impossible-style, to put down their badges and go rogue. Their target is Cohen’s gambling and heroin-smuggling rings. Their weapons; brute force, wire taps, Molotov cocktails and some sexy charm.
The squad is made up of a group so P.C. a workplace would get tax credits for hiring them nowadays. There’s pretty boy Ryan Gosling. Old-timer-who-can-still-match-it-with-the-young’uns Robert Patrick. 1940s tech geek Giovanni Ribisi. Token black Anthony Mackie. Token Mexican Michael Peña. With the help of a few montages they begin to clean up the dirty town, before Cohen begins to suspect he’s not dealing with a rival gang and decides to hit back at the vigilante cops.
Impaling itself on the script from the get-go, Gangster Squad seems almost embarrassed at how formulaic it is. See if you can guess from the dialogue which member of the squad will get killed off first. Yes, it’s the one who all of his dialogue, and all dialogue directed to him, telegraphs his death from his first scene. The screenplay is full of ’40s-style gangster movie speak, but none of it feels natural or is sold with the gusto of the stars of the films noir of the ’40s and ’50s. Josh Brolin’s narration sounds more like a Spider-Man movie than a gangster film, with the movie’s theme appearing to be “with great power comes great responsibility to abuse that power… responsibly!”
In fact, Gangster Squad never feels like a gangster movie at all. The guerrilla and espionage tactics of the squad make it feel more like a war or spy movie, while the action scenes and the bombastic score that accompany them make it seem unpleasantly current. The shoot-outs feature all the gun-throwing and slowmo that recent action films have become overly prone to, and the whole enterprise looks and feels like “Zack Snyder’s The Untouchables”. And I don’t care how you like both of those things, that is still not a good idea!
There are some nice touches, such as a fight scene in the dark where the frame freezes every time a gun is fired, but the CGI-heavy car chase undoes much of that good. It’s all style over substance, but the style is borrowed from history. Sure the ’40s look is given a pretty gloss, but it’s never shot with the care or energy to really show it off properly. The whole film feels like people playing around on old-timey sets with old-timey guns in old-timey clothes, instead of feeling like a throwback to the gangster movie greats. It’s cosplay, not homage.
Brolin hams it up in the lead role, while Gosling repeatedly fluffs the ’40s-style expressions, and the script has him blurt out lines bluntly that were born to be double entendres. As Gosling’s squeeze and Mickey Cohen’s moll, Emma Stone looks just a little too cutesy, but her husky voice has echoes of Bacall. Her character peaks early in a breathtaking red dress, but her clothes rapidly descend downhill into dowdy-dom.
As Mickey Cohen, Sean Penn doesn’t so much chew the scenery as frappé it in a blender, gargle it and spit it out where he chooses. Looking like he’s wearing the prosthetics of a Dick Tracy villain (it may actually be his real face now), his warpath is one of the few highlights of the film, but while his dialogue is vigorously shouted, very little of it is any good.
Who the film’s audience is remains a mystery. The younger crowd who have made Zombieland a cult hit won’t find anything inventive enough for them here, while older fans of gangster films will find it all too inane. This is the first movie of 2013 to prove the old idea that you can’t style your way out of a bad script.