Gangster Squad is a Violent but Shallow Homage to the Gangster Film

Gangster Squad Theatrical Poster

Gangster Squad Theatrical Poster

TitleGangster Squad
Genre(s)Action, Crime, Drama
Director(s)Ruben Fleischer
Release Year2013
IMDB7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes33%

If there was one movie in 2012 that I was most excited to see, it was Gangster Squad. The trailer had a distinct visual style that impressed me at the time, the cast could not have been any better, and it looked like a fun gangster film that would also be a great addition to the genre itself. Then when it was delayed to 2013 for re-shoots after the Aurora, Colorado shootings I was disappointed to have to wait until 2013 for this movie. Well, I’ve been regretting my hype ever since walking out of the abysmal film that is Ruben Fleischer’s second strike against him as a director. Ever since Zombieland, I considered Fleischer to be a director for whom to watch out, having a distinct visual flourish to his work and an eye for action that made his first feature length film an exhilarating experience. Then came 30 Minutes or Less which was not very funny, had one scene which I recall being good, and then the rest of the movie felt flat. Well, not content with having one mediocre film under his belt, Fleischer has decided to take a crack at the crime genre with Gangster Squad; a film that will easily become one of my biggest disappointments of the year.

Right off the bat, Gangster Squad opens with a ridiculously violent scene, setting the tone of the film and how ruthless our main antagonist, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), really is. It’s dark and ludicrous, same as all the other aspects of the film. But that doesn’t mean it gets to be a full-fledged cliche of its own. The movie follows John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a cop with a vendetta against Cohen because he’s corruption in human form (I presume, they don’t really explain any motives or they’re pretty flimsy explanations), as he puts together an off-the-books squad of police officers to take down Cohen. This squad, the “gangster squad” if you will, is comprised of people who are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to get the job done, and most have a specific skill that makes them an asset to the team. In typical team-forming fashion, each member of the team is walked in on just as they are showing off their specific skill, and subsequently recruited. Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, and later on Ryan Gosling all join the squad with Brolin, creating an incredible ensemble right there. Unfortunately, nothing in this movie ever feels the way it should.

You notice very few people care Brolin's in the film? It's because his character is literally only a ruthless leader, nothing else. Very little depth.

You notice very few people care Brolin’s in the film? It’s because his character is literally only a ruthless leader, nothing else. Very little depth.

To start off, not a single character in the squad has more than one dimension to them. Each play their own trope, whether it be the smart guy, the ladies man (who apparently hasn’t had sex in weeks), the hotshot, the ruthless leader, the sidekick, and the black guy. That is the summation of every character, and yes, Anthony Mackie does not really play anything but a black cop. If there was much else to his character, I missed it. And you know Ryan Gosling plays the ladies man, which is perhaps the best casting for him, but why he hasn’t been “sophisticated” in weeks, is a line that was clearly written for somebody else because the entire film Gosling is hitting on women and the one girl that he sleeps with happens to be Emma Stone, who is one of Cohen’s girls. Gangster Squad feels more like a circus than a gritty gangster film, and I blame that completely on the script. But Fleischer couldn’t even find a way to work with his cast and get compelling performances out of anyone. Even Gosling who I generally can’t get enough of, is squandered because of the horribly written character he’s given. Even his motivation to join the squad is poorly crafted. Something bad happens to a person who he only knows through casual interaction, and so off he goes to join O’Mara’s team of misfits, offering very little to the team but being the nagging voice in O’Mara’s head and the guy who has fallen in love with Cohen’s girl after only a few minutes.

Throughout Gangster Squad all that I was thinking was how much more predictable the movie could be. By paying homage to the classic gangster films of yore, the movie struggles trying to keep itself feeling fresh and unique. There’s moment after moment where I just wanted to slap Will Beall in the face for sacrificing plot development for convenience. Too many times does coincidence come into play, or the film decides that we don’t need more explanation and propels a character into a situation with which there is no justification. And don’t even get me started on the final fight of the movie, which is ridiculously bad and poorly set up. Let’s just say, it’s not smart in any situation to give away your tactical advantage so you can give your opponent the advantage. Absolutely ludicrous.

Emma Stone might as well have not had a character name and just been called "Love interest/damsel in distress."

Emma Stone might as well have not had a character name and just been called “Love interest/damsel in distress.”

But while the film’s script may be the worst thing about Gangster Squad, the aesthetics of the film are perhaps the best aspect, but far from great. If the movie was intended to be this dark, gritty film, the slow-motion and special effects took every aspect of realism out of the movie and turned it more into a comedy than a crime drama. Some scenes worked well, but others felt very low-budget in contrast to the big set pieces like the Chinatown sequence. It is clear that this is Fleischer’s preferred style, and it worked well in Zombieland, but that was an over-the-top comedy, while this is a drama with dry one-liners and intense scenes of violence. I tried my best to get into the visual style because it is definitely the best part of the movie, but it’s also the most jarring in the context of the rest of the film.

I never would have expected to dislike this movie as much as I do, especially going in with such high hopes of a great contribution to the crime genre. Instead, I was trapped in a world that felt extremely superficial courtesy of some of the worst writing I’ve experienced in a while. Gangster Squad seemed like it would be fresh and exciting upon first glance, but all of that was squandered with the script, and the only thing even remotely interesting was the visual style. However, this is an aesthetic that does no good for the movie, because it feels like a complete disconnect from the chilling tone consistently trying to be shown in the film. Add to all of this an all-star cast that gets completely wasted, and the criminally bad characters that they’re forced to try and make believable to the audience, and what you have is one of the most disappointing ways to start off the new year and another nail in the coffin of Fleischer’s directing career.

Overall: Not Recommended

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3 responses to “Gangster Squad is a Violent but Shallow Homage to the Gangster Film

  1. Next time I read a blog, Hopefully it does not disappoint me just as much as this one. After all, I know it was my choice to read, however I truly believed you would probably have something helpful to say. All I hear is a bunch of crying about something you could fix if you were not too busy looking for attention.

    • Care to specify? I suppose you could consider the review “a bunch of crying” but it is not my fault the movie barely warrants positive comments. Not sure what I could fix, but if you’d like to point that out, that would be great and perhaps this blog could improve. No one here writes for money, but we like to think we strive for quality content, so if you have any suggestions feel free to share.

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