Review: ‘Gangster Squad’ Packs A Powerful Punch But Lacks Substance

For years moviegoers have been waiting for the return of a true gangster film that could contend with the greats like The Godfather and Goodfellas. So did Gangster Squad get there? Not quite. An audience may leave the theater impressed by the showy theatrics of guns, and the meticulous detail of the 1940s Hollywood aesthetic, but we certainly won’t be talking about this one for years to come.

Director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad throws enough violent punches that will keep any audience entertained, but inevitably goes pulpy when it should have gone with substance instead. While the chases are plenty, and the violent noir crime scenes are excellently highlighted in Fleishcher’s modern stylization, the film’s greatest downfall is with Will Beall’s light script, which will leave the audience wanting more out of the characters behind the guns and flashy costumes.

It’s surprising that a film that was once originally groomed for an Oscar-friendly September release date, could have such an underdeveloped script. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, but it’s marketed as a cool gangster film, which is problematic. While the production design and costume design is simply stunning, which gives the film a unique authenticity of old Hollywood panache as a whole it does little to compete with its forefathers. At times it feels more like a satire than an homage.

At the center of the story is an east coast mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who is talked up as a terrifyingly intimidating thug. Cohen wants to own the City of Angels. To stop this from happening, a rough around the edges gangster squad is assembled and led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and a reluctant Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) to save their city from Cohen’s grasp, even if it means playing dirty. Brolin’s character blurs the line of good versus evil while pursuing Cohen. With Brolin, who is known to often ride that line of good guy turned bad, there’s a certain complexity that he could have given the character, but for the most part he sounds like he’s doing his best James Cagney impersonation.

A retired boxer, Mickey Cohen thinks nothing of having his goons cause chaos with creative killings, one that sees a man take a drill to the head. While there’s a lot of build up to Mickey Cohen he never comes off as too menacing. In fact, the most satisfying action sequences that make this film engaging have little to do with Cohen. One fantastic action scene shows the men in a quick shoot-em-up style in an alleyway, but Cohen isn’t present. For the most part, he’s just a puppet master.

Penn should have been terrifying, his face certainly suggests that he is, but it falls flat. With laughable lines like, “All good things must be burned to the ground one day for the insurance money” it’s unclear if the throwaway lines are there to create humor, or if that was even director Fleischer’s intended reaction. When given the chance, Penn packs a punch, both literally and figuratively; in an entertaining performance, but in the end his character lacks proper development.

Then there’s Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters who gets himself involved early on in a romance with Mickey’s main squeeze, an aspiring leggy actress Grace (Emma Stone). Gosling and Stone ultimately were lost in a side-plot that never fully drives the story forward. It’s a shame because the reunion of the two actors proves to be a terrific choice, as they have a magnetic chemistry on-screen together.

While Gosling has turned out better performances in recent years, it’s not against the actor’s merit. If anything, Gosling brought the charm, cool, and sometimes intense moments that Gangster Squad needed to succeed. He sells himself well, and because he’s so engaging to watch, with his flash in the pan jokes, and a particularly intense moment involving the death that hits home, it’s easy to enjoy his performance in the film.

The people that show up just for Gosling’s name will be certainly satisfied by his style and brand of natural charisma he exudes. Stone on the other hand, while she looks fantastic in the film, is simply used as an old Hollywood backdrop. To Stone’s credit, this is the most composed role she’s been in, and suggests that she’s ready for a more mature turn. Either way, you won’t be able to keep your eyes off of Stone or Gosling.

The saving grace of the film is Fleischer’s direction. Visually the fast-paced, glitzy, in-your-face film is stunning for its genre and really brings forth a modern approach on a tired style. It’s probably the most interesting thing about the film. From the first glance at Emma Stone up against the bar in her red dress, to the detailing in capturing the flickering of an ignited flame, Fleischer certainly gets it right where it counts to make this an engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable blockbuster film.