It’s only the second release week of 2013 and already we have a strong contender for “most inconsequential film of the year.” Shot and edited without any idea of how to make it exciting, written like what a 12-year-old might think a tough gangster movie would sound like, and looking surprisingly modern for a period piece that takes place in 1949 and is “inspired by true events,” Gangster Squad is a perfect example of mediocrity hitting the big screen.
In fact, the only interesting thing about this movie is how it came to be released in January and not in September like was originally planned. As many of you will note, the Aurora shooting spree took place, and was a tragedy. In Gangster Squad‘s trailer, the titular squad shoots up a movie theater. Thinking that keeping that scene in would be rather tasteless, the studio pulled back the release date and re-shot portions of the film to have the big shootout take place somewhere else. They then scheduled a new release date of January 11, 2013, instead of September 7, 2012.
Perhaps it’s just the cynic in me thinking this, but if the film was any good, why would it get released in January, which is the dumping ground for bad films? If the studio had faith that it was great, surely holding it back another couple of months would have been the right thing to do. My theory is that they knew this wasn’t going to be anything special, or even good, so it was dumped in January, even despite its cast of stars and surprisingly large budget of $75 million.
The basic idea of Gangster Squad is that a group of LAPD Detectives got together and formed a team whose goal it was to stop the gangsters who threatened to take control of Los Angeles. The villain is a ruthless man named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a former boxer who pays off anyone who gets in the way of his “business dealings,” which are illegal. Nobody can touch him, everyone thinks, but since we know the film is about the titular squad, we’re pretty sure that he can, at the very least, be upset, if not fully removed from the equation.
The gang: John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a family man and our protagonist/narrator; Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a ladies’ man and nothing more; Rocky Washington (Anthony Mackie), someone who really hates heroin; Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the fastest draw in the Wild West — seriously, he sounds like he’s from the 1840s, not the 1940s; Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) a rookie cop nobody takes seriously because he’s Mexican; and Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), another family man and the one tasked with listening in to a bugged television set.
Does that not seem like some sort of dream cast? Throw in Nick Nolte as the police chief who orders John to do this and Emma Stone as the love interest for one or possibly more of the characters, and you’re talking quite a strong group of actors. It’s just a shame they had to go and make this, such a lifeless, bland, uninspired movie. Did we really need a soft-remake of The Untouchables? That’s really what Gangster Squad feels like.
Much of the problem comes from the director, Ruben Fleischer, whose previous feature-length work is made up entirely of comedies. He did Zombieland, which was a lot of fun, and 30 Minutes or Less, which was not. He does manage to inject Gangster Squad with some genuinely funny moments — the best of which involved a knockout blow which failed in its target; you rarely see that in non-comedies at the cinema — but most of the time he feels completely wrong for this material. He doesn’t seem to “get” the feel of this type of movie.
There is no depth to any of the characters. The dialogue is so cheesy and unfitting that it feels like it was written by someone who maybe watch a gangster film once in high school and is trying to remember what the characters sounded like, there’s more slow motion than in a Zack Snyder movie, but used without any purpose. Seriously, there’s a shootout late in the movie that is done entirely in slow motion and it accomplishes nothing — especially when you know that none of the main characters will die.
Despite the overuse of slow motion, the action scenes are still cut together in such a way so as to not allow you any idea of who’s doing what to whom at any given moment. There’s even a car fight, but since all of the characters look similar and the cars are the same models, you never know what’s going on. The same is true of the fist fights — the climax is one, which is to be expected, and is the only decent action in the entire film — and many of the shootouts.
There’s nothing to Gangster Squad. Under the gangster movie surface, it’s an empty, hollow movie, and there’s absolutely no reason to watch it. You trudge through it, hoping the payoff will be worth the almost two hours of your life that it takes to finish — and it feels a lot longer than that — and you won’t get that. The Untouchables exists so this film doesn’t have to. It has an attractive cast and some touches of humor, but Gangster Squad is a cheap knockoff of one of what used to be one of the most reliable genres around.