Let’s start with the essentials. Gangster Squad is not at all a good film.
I try, in general, to resist the temptation to completely rubbish films that dozens if not hundreds of talented people have spent a year of their lives on. It’s too easy. Torpedoing a 75 million dollar movie with a 0.75p blog post feels unfair, like asymmetrical warfare.
But at the same time you Bleeding Cool readers are my imaginary friends. I don’t want to see you spend your hard-earned on a film with a script that would be rejected as too simplistic by the Scooby Doo team.
Gangster Squad rather fancies that it’s LA Confidential meets The Untouchables. It’s more like Sin City meets The Expendables. And not in a good way.
We’re in postwar Los Angeles. Film Noir, James Ellroy Los Angeles. A violent gangster called Mickey Cohen owns the city. We know he’s a bad guy because he re-enacts the label on your Levis in the opening seconds of the film.
So a badass team of supercops has to be put together to take Cohen (Sean Penn in some Dick Tracy makeup) down. So we’re instantly into one of those ‘recruiting a team’ montages. Each member of the team has to have a special skill. And that’s their defining characteristic. There’s the Sharpshooter, the Knife Guy, the Guy Who Seems To Have Wandered In From The Set Of The Wire. And we don’t know anything about them at all.
And therein lies my problem with Gangster Squad. Nobody is anything beyond their headline. Josh Brolin, as primary supercop Sgt. John O’Mara, is a Dudley Do-Right squarejohn Roger Ramjet WW2 vet with no particular place to go in character terms. His chief adversary Mickey Cohen is a villain because..uh..because EVIL. Jimmy Cagney was putting more complex, nuanced villains on screen before Gangster Squad was SET, let alone made.
About the most interesting character in the film is Sgt. Jerry Wooters, played by superhunk du jour Ryan Gosling. He’s a philandering dirty cop who suddenly becomes one of the good guys because….well principally because he’s got an eye for Mickey Cohen’s failed starlet girlfriend Grace Faraday.
Faraday is played by Emma Stone as essentially a grown-up Tallulah from Bugsy Malone. She isn’t given a whole bunch to do other than slink around in a Jessica Rabbit frock and smoke cigarettes but she does those things very well indeed.
I can’t find a real-life Grace Faraday in any Mickey Cohen biographies. The real kingpin of 40s LA gangland was surrounded by women with fanciful monickers such as Tempest Storm and Candy Barr. Missing them off the cast list is another strike against Gangster Squad in my book. We could have done with a few chuckles to break up all those shots of cascading cartridges.
And unfortunately there’s no real sense of drama or peril because we aren’t invested in these cartoon characters. You can more or less predict everyone’s outcome from their introduction.
To be fair to director Ruben Fleischer he’s managed to slot in a fair few Brian De Palma-influenced set pieces that work very well indeed. This isn’t a good film, but no-one could accuse it of being an uneventful one.
The removal of a pivotal shootout set in a cinema doesn’t really hurt the film, there’s a perfectly good replacement which in no way shrinks from people getting shot and things going bang.
And, unlike the career of real-life mobster Mickey Cohen who was of course busted (twice) for tax evasion this film ends with a fist-fight. If you always wanted to see a big-screen outing for minor DC hero Slam Bradley, you’re in luck.
Imagine an episode of Dragnet colourised and then padded to feature length with the insertion of some bravura shootouts and a Carmen Miranda number, you’ve got Gangster Squad.
The question is, do you want it?