The year is 1949 and Los Angeles is under the thumb of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a former boxer who climbed the mobster ladder to become the ultimate crime ruler of the western United States. He kills at will, takes any dame he likes, and has paid off the majority of the LAPD to follow his every word. Enter Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a cop and WWII vet who, after a meeting with Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), is assigned the top secret task of taking down Cohen by any means necessary, regardless of the law. Not wanting to take on such an intimidating target on his own, O’Mara enlists a diverse group of officers to help him out, including handsome young rogue Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), knife throwing expert Det. Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and the Old West-style codger Det. Max Kennard (Robert Patrick). Together, this squadron of gangster killing cops (or, as one may call them, a “Gangster Squad”) is out to overthrow Cohen’s seat of power and bring LA back to the status quo of justice it deserves.
Gangster Squad is one of the more intriguing films to come out of this very young year. Not only did it look like another stylish and star studded effort from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, but it has a notable and unfortunate production history stigma behind it, as the film was pulled from it’s September 2012 release date when the studio decided to do reshoots after removing a shoot out sequence in a movie theater following the tragic Aurora, Colorado mass shooting that occurred in July. So, with all that unlucky backstory behind it, it’s rather sad to report that the film is just a mediocre mess.
The main issue here is that the film doesn’t quite know where to go tonally. The film is at its best when it embraces the very pulpy Dick Tracy style of gangster film, complete with a lush Technicolor style sheen. The production design and cinematography here really do deserve praise, as the sets and lighting manage to eerily resemble the gorgeous bright colors of films from the early 1950s, which Fleischer shoots with extremely stylish precision. However, while the technical side of the film embraces this very over the top identity, it’s a shame that the script feels too tame to be fully committed.
What I mean is that Will Beall’s script seems to be too tempered to go all out in terms of lurid cheapness. Instead, it’s this clunky, underwritten effort that doesn’t give this supremely promising cast much to work with. There are points where the characters try to be contemplative about the violence they partake in, which feels like extreme backpedaling for a film that mostly feels like an unapologetically garish celebration of ultraviolence. I’m not saying that you couldn’t question those subjects in a film like this, but Beall shoehorns it into the script feels, maybe due to the Aurora delay.
Now, this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have that much violence in there. In fact, far from it. The violence here is often cartoonish and gory in a way that shows off just how talented Fleischer can be when he’s allowed to be ostentatious. The ways in which some of these gangster characters explode in a gush of blood and bullets is almost beautiful in of how obscenely unforgiving it is, which Fleischer scores perfectly with a brilliantly chosen soundtrack of era appropriate music. The same can be said for some of the better performances in the film, with Sean Penn being the obvious stand out. Penn is clearly taking a page from Al Pacino in Dick Tracy, as he dives full on into an totally cartoonish caraticture of a 1940s gangster, which feels like the exact right tone for the film to strive for; all out silly, without a bit of remorse for its black and white nature. The same can be said for fellow experienced actors like the stone-jawed Josh Brolin and the Western gunslinger inspired Robert Patrick’s portrayals. The most disappointing performers are the uprising young talents, with great actors like Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Anthony Mackie getting saddled with very little to chew on, even if they do bring out as much as they can from Beall’s script.
At the end of the day, Gangster Squad is an uneven attempt at a throwback to the grimiest of crime fiction. The mediocre product here at least gives me more appreciation for other films in its vein like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy or Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. As much as I found those films to be rather flawed, they were at least far more consistent with this type of experiment than Squad is. I hope Fleischer can pick another film that can showcase his talents like Zombieland did, but Squad doesn’t go far enough to embrace his style. So, while it’s a watchable failure, the final result is still rife with disappointment.