Remember that kid in high school? The one who wasn’t terribly bright, but had the best of intentions, was charming, and had a good sense of humor? The one who would get up to give a presentation before the class and really botch all the requirements of the assignment while still managing to be entertaining? Well,Gangster Squad is that kid.
Gangster Squad is a very loose telling of the historical story of the criminal underbelly that rose to power in late-1940s Los Angeles led by notorious gangster Mickey Cohen. Cohen has a good portion of the city’s law enforcement in his pocket so no one is willing to go after him, that is, no one except for the chief of the LAPD (Nick Nolte) who recruits police detective and war veteran John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to lead an off-the-books task force to take down Cohen.
This is a film that feels terribly conflicted. On one hand it often revels in being a dumb, pulpy, old-fashioned gangster flick, but on the other hand it also tries to go for more highbrow dramatic moments in the vein of more recent gangster films. It feels like a case where director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) wanted to go for a more cartoony tone, while Warner Bros. desired something a bit more “respectable” and possibly even Oscar-baity, and in an attempt to meet halfway in the middle it failed in both areas. Which is really kind of a shame, because when the film embraces being pulpy it can actually be quite fun. There’s some clever one-liners and some fun performances; Josh Brolin’s Sergeant O’Mara is a one-dimensional, masculine hero who puts his duty above all else, and Brolin knows just how to play it, embracing the shallow silliness of it without playing it as a farce. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are fun as the scoundrel with the heart of gold and the damsel in distress respectively (even though I never could quite buy Stone as being from that era for whatever reason). Sean Penn has some good over-the-top moments as Mickey Cohen, but he never quite reaches the scenery-chewing levels of villainy I was hoping for. The other characters have a few fun moments too, but never enough to feel like they are anything more than background texture.
It seems almost silly to gripe about the narrative issues in a film like this, but because it does try to be dramatic I feel I should at least comment on why it fails across the board in that aspect. The biggest problem is that none of the characters feel like real people, they’re caricatures, they’re vehicles to drive the story forward, but the story isn’t really about them. When the movie slows down to try to dive into their characters it rings hollow because there’s nothing there to explore. To make matters worse there’s also some awkward story beats that make it apparent that a good chunk of this film was left on the cutting room floor.
It’s worth mentioning that while the production design of the film is really quite strong the cinematography is not. They’ve recreated 1940s LA in a beautiful fashion; the set design, the costumes, the period music, it all really works. However, the digital photography on this movie is often terrible. As far as the film vs. digital debate goes, I usually come down on the side of film, but I understand that digital photography has its uses and, if handled properly, can often look quite good. However, many sequences of this movie look flat and lifeless, often having a shot-on-video quality that looks thoroughly ugly. It’s not always bad, for instance, one of the central locations in the film is a night club frequented by Mickey Cohen, and most scenes shot there look quite good, but those kind of scenes are unfortunately in the minority.
Gangster Squad is at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, when it acknowledges the fact that it’s effectively a Saturday morning cartoon set over the backdrop of a pretty re-creation of 1949 Los Angeles and when it plays the characters broad and the action exaggerated, rather than trying to be serious. For what it’s worth, though, I did enjoy the film well enough. It’s not a great film, it’s barely even a good film, but for what it is it’s entertaining. I wished it would have committed more fully to the pulpy nature of the story, but it’s hard to really get too upset over this film. I fully admit that I’m probably going easy on this film because it’s January, and nothing good ever comes out in January (also possibly because after seeing Texas Chainsaw 3D last week this feels like a bona fide masterpiece), but I still enjoyed the film as the disposable fluff it was. If you haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty yet, that’s the one to see this weekend, but in January you could certainly do a whole lot worse than Gangster Squad.