Ryan Gosling in GANGSTER SQUAD will likely launch a thousand more “Hey Girl” memes, virtually assuring that the movie will live for a long time (well, long for the Internet, anyway) past its expiration date. And that expiration date was about 16 years ago, when L.A. CONFIDENTIAL did this kind of thing with authority. GANGSTER SQUAD wants to be L.A CONFIDENTIAL so badly, along with many, many other gangster movies. Look! There’s that “Put one in the brain!” guy from MILLER’S CROSSING! There’s Sean Penn playing Mickey Cohen like DeNiro did Capone in THE UNTOUCHABLES! GANGSTER SQUAD never met another gangster movie that it didn’t love. Sadly, it’s the kind of love that causes one to tuck their junk between their legs and dance naked to “Goodbye Horses.”
It’s 1949, and Los Angeles is undergoing a crime wave due to Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and his illegal enterprises. Cohen wants to send a message back to Chicago and the crime families on the East Coast – Los Angeles is his town and to come there is at your peril. Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) has only one option to stop Cohen – form a clandestine group of cops who are not beholden to the law to shut Cohen’s rackets down.
To that end Parker enlists John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to head the group, and O'Mara brings his fellow cops into the squad – the Loverboy (Ryan Gosling), The Black Streetwise Cop (Anthony Mackie), The Old Cowboy Fart (Robert Patrick), The Mexican Rookie (Michael Pena), and The Nerd Dad (Giovanni Ribisi). I can’t be bothered to look up the names, because they don’t really play characters anyway. They’re simply archetypes. It doesn’t stop with the Squad either – we also get The Pregnant Wife (Mireille Enos) and The Moll Who Really Wants To Be A Star (Emma Stone).
And then there’s Sean Penn, made up so heavily as Cohen that his face barely moves under the prosthetics, nullifying what could have been a fun, hammy performance. He’s given a few zingers in the script, but he gives them such an odd delivery that it’s hard to tell if he’s taking the role seriously or not. All the performances are over-the-top, but some manage to carry it off better than others. I’d say that Robert Patrick is the best thing in the movie – he seems to know what he’s signed up for, while Ryan Gosling manages to bring some of that inner cool that he had in spades in DRIVE.
If Josh Brolin had approached the material with the same kind of irreverence, he might have pulled this one off. Instead, he grimaces when he needs to act and some of the mad faces he makes are laughable. I remember one distinctly during one particular scene, and I won’t be surprised if this also makes its way onto Internet memes in the near future.
Ruben Fleischer’s direction is uninspired. When the movie needs to move forward, there’s a shootout. It doesn’t matter if there’s any dramatic tension to it at all – it’s simply there to fill the spaces. There is one particular moment (interestingly, it’s the scene shot to replace the infamous theater shooting scene that was taken out of the movie after the Aurora massacre) where the film threatens to become something different, but alas, it is not to be. Plus, the cinematography is inconsistent – some scenes look nice enough, and others have so much motion blur it sometimes feels like this movie was shot with digital cameras circa 2002.
The script, by Will Beall (very loosely based on Paul Lieberman’s book), gets off some good lines now and then, but those lines are more about showing off then actually progressing the plot at all. And halfway decent dialogue can’t cover up that the story has nothing original about it. It’s full of common clichés and tropes, most of them older than the audience that this movie was intended for. There’s a real cynicism to the script – these plot points were old hat back in the gangster movie heyday, but perhaps they’re so old that the target audience won’t recognize them, as if they’d never seen a movie before.
GANGSTER SQUAD is never unique. It feels like a Frankenstein monster made up of better, more elegant gangster movies. The plot points can be timed with a decent watch and any sense of how basic movies work. Sure, you could say that Brian DePalma was doing the same thing with THE UNTOUCHABLES. But DePalma brought an elegance and grace to what was admittedly a fairly cliché plot. He had the good sense to rip off great filmmakers instead of simply other gangster movies, and he brought his own style and wit to it.
Ruben Fleischer is certainly no DePalma. It’s unfortunate because Fleischer has made good movies before. But GANGSTER SQUAD takes absolutely no risks, gives us nothing new that hasn’t been shown to us in a thousand other crime movies, and doesn’t have the courage to even try to break from the mold. There’s absolutely nothing new in it. If you've never seen a gangster movie (hell, if you've never seen another movie) before, something here might surprise you, but even then it's a toss. This is GANGSTERS FOR DUMMIES.