Gangster Squad had everything going for it. The cast is made up, almost entirely, of extremely talented performers. It is helmed by a young, fresh and exciting filmmaker, who has already turned out a bonafide great in Zombieland. The plot is fantastic, sounding like a sort-of-remake of The Untouchables, except in a sexier city with a more volatile real-life gangster. All this, plus the excellent advertising, had film fans primed for a violent, fun, gangster romp. But does Gangster Squad reach those lofty expectations?
Gangster Squad is set in 1949, where Los Angeles is owned by Mickey Cohen, a Brooklyn-raised gangster who has come West and forced his Chicago counterparts out of the city. Cohen is powerful and virtually unreachable, his control of corrupt officials and the criminal underworld is astounding. Enter Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a tough, honest, hard-as-nails cop who is selected by his Chief (Nick Nolte) to run a secret crew of cops. O’Mara and his crew must do whatever it takes to bring down Cohen and LA’s criminal world.
One of the most exciting things about Gangster Squad before going in is the cast. The film is primarily focused on Penn and Brolin. Penn’s Cohen is cartoonish, but menacing as the actor plays up the flamboyant and over-the-top side of Mickey Cohen. Brolin plays it more straight, his old school character is by far the best part of the film. His Sergeant is gritty, blunt and straight out of the 1940s. Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Giovanni Ribisi, Frank Grillo, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña and the gorgeous Emma Stone round out the impressive cast. Most of the supporting cast don’t get a lot to work with, although all deliver solid work.
The film is directed by Ruben Fleischer. Fleischer directed the fantastic Zombieland, which was fresh and original and became an instant hit largely thanks to his fun and energetic direction. Fleischer felt like the perfect director to bring Gangster Squad to the big screen. Sadly though this was a huge misstep, with the young filmmaker making many mistakes along the way and making a schizophrenic film that touches on too many different genres and styles. The uneven tone is frustrating, as some of it really works but when it doesn’t work it reeks of a filmmaker trying too hard.
Fleischer’s reliance on style over substance does bring out some good though. The majority of the action sequences are fun, engaging and enjoyable to watch. Fleischer’s unfocused, uneven approach to Gangster Squad only works when it comes to the action. There is a nice variety, with no two action sequences being the same. The showdown finale between Cohen and O’Mara is brutally over the top and the comically casino hold-up stood out as the highlights.
Gangster Squad is without a doubt one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen in the last few years. Thanks to Fleischer’s over-direction the film has no identity. It toes too many different genre and style lines, with every scene feeling like it belongs in another movie. It should also be mentioned that Gangster Squad is the perfect example of the bad-side of digital photography, with the film consistently looking like a cheap day-time tv-movie. The cast and a few exciting action scenes kind of save the day by at least making the film watchable. Josh Brolin especially is fantastic and without him I would of had a hard time making it through the films meager run-time.