Film review: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad 

(MA15+)  *** 

Director: Ruben Fleischer. 

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte.

WHEN this tale of Los Angeles mobsters and cops went into production, there would have been high hopes that its title would have been among the nominees announced for this year’s Oscars.

Just look at that cast — it’s outstanding.

That cast is the best thing about this otherwise disappointing film, which aspires and desires to be on the level of its obvious predecessors, but never fully commits to being anything other than sadly forgettable. 

Gangster Squad wants to be a film noir. It wants to be a dark period piece in the vein of LA Confidential. It wants the bloodshed of Scarface, the shoot-outs of Heat, the grand scope and themes of Casino and Goodfellas, and the historical punch and panache of The Untouchables.

Unfortunately, by never totally following through on one of these ambitions, the film falls short.

Having said that, it’s still mildly enjoyable, thanks to the cast and a couple of decent set pieces and in spite of its near-endless stream of clichés and poor scripting.

Brolin stars as Sergeant John O’Mara, a war veteran-turned-cop tasked with fighting an undercover battle against Los Angeles’ leading gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn).

The incorruptible O’Mara puts together his dirty half-dozen — which includes the ladies’ man (Gosling), the tech genius (Ribisi), the token black cop (Mackie), the token Latino cop (Pena), and the grizzled sharpshooter (Patrick) — and goes to work on literally smashing Cohen’s various nefarious operations.

Gangster Squad is based loosely — very, very loosely apparently — on the real-life battle waged in Los Angeles against Cohen and his men in the ’40s and ’50s and it’s certainly an interesting period and story, one which helps pave over some of the insufficiencies.

The production design is great and the film certainly looks the part. As do the stars, who do a great job with what they’ve got. Brolin is sincere and stoic, Penn exudes danger, Gosling and Stone are a slick pairing, and the rest of the squad fill out their under-developed characters admirably.

The script is not-so-good. The characters spout aphorisms that are supposed to be profound, but just come off hackneyed, as do some of the attempts at noir-ish tough-guy speak. 

Almost as bad is the reliance on cliches, which come in a flurry towards the end of the film (which weirdly borrows its finale from Lethal Weapon for no good reason). Equally frustrating are doubts voiced by the good guys along the lines of “are we doing the right thing?” and “have we gone too far?”. They ring hollow and of a desperate attempt to add weight to a film that can’t bear the load.

There are highlights. A mid-film car chase is a beauty, coming amid the squad’s admittedly enjoyable attempts to ruin Cohen, and certain moments, relationships and shots shine.

If not for the cast, this would be two stars. Luckily for director Ruben Fleischer, who brought us the excellent Zombieland, his actors rally to save this from being a complete time-waster.

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