Ryan Gosling. Sean Penn. Josh Brolin. Emma Stone. Robert Patrick. Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Pena. Directed by Reuben Fleischer in a post World War II cops vs. Gangsters story. This is a movie I wanted to see from the moment I heard about it.
Set in Los Angeles and facing off against famed mob boss Mickey Cohen, the players form an elite and off the books squad of cops who at the behest of the Chief of Police (played by Nick Nolte) take the battle against organized crime right to the head honcho. They hit him hard and where it hurts.
Does this sound familiar? Yeah, it sounds a lot like The Untouchables. Too bad it’s nowhere near as good as The Untouchables.
Now hold up a moment, that’s not to say that this is a truly terrible movie, just that’s it’s also not a very good one. The problems are twofold, first there’s the issue of balance.
See, half the time it seems to be a serious cop drama complete with “are we doing the right thing?” moments and the rest of the time it seems like it’s trying to be Dick Tracy 2, complete with characters who are either stereotypes or caricatures (more on that in a moment).
Seriously. Sean Penn plays Cohen so over the top that he’s kind of hard to take seriously and Troy Garity is his main henchman who has a scar over his face that damaged his eye, and is credited as “One Eyed Assassin”. Meanwhile, Josh Brolin is the tough as nails, uncompromising lead detective and Ryan Gosling is the morally grey detective who needs to decide if he’s really in the game or not. The problem here is that the movie never commits to one tone. Is it light and fun or is it dark and serious? The answer is neither because it seems to try so hard to meet in the middle.
If any of this is starting to sound familiar again it’s because of the second problem: there’s pretty much literally nothing here you haven’t seen before. There’s two deaths on the squad and normally I’d consider that spoilery, but if you can’t tell which ones it’s going to be after each of their first scenes (and what the immediate follow-up is going to be) then you’re probably watching a different movie than I was.
The film has other problems as well. A one liner here and there is good, several one liners during every sequence is silly. The rest of the dialogue is pretty bad too, even the lines that sounded cool in the trailer fall flat in the movie itself and they’re trying so hard to be cool that no one gets any real development. Everyone ends up just being a pastiche of others you’ve seen before. The Hard Ass, the cowboy, the tech guy, the minorities struggling for acceptance, and the old man police chief.
Worse yet, none of the actors really have any chemistry together. Sure, Josh Brolin and Mireille Enos has some, but the home story is a sub plot and Josh Brolin talking to almost anyone else feels forced. Even Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone don’t really seem to connect despite having done so in other films.
There’s a lot to like here in the small details. The movie looks amazing, from the sets to the costumes to the hair and makeup, everything looks pretty spectacular actually. The story itself isn’t bad, and we all know Reuben Fleischer loves his slow motion shots. In the end though, the looks are just window dressing, the story is told with little nuance and terrible dialogue and the slow motion (and sped up) stuff just makes the pacing of the big final action sequence fall to pieces.
The scenes that do play well are the action scenes (not sped up or slowed down) but they almost feel like a different movie.
Gangster Squad was one of my most anticipated films of the year. Maybe because of that context I am being hard on it, but I don’t think I am. It seems to be a movie that was made to make a great trailer. Lots of one liners to choose from, beautiful people in beautiful clothes on beautiful sets, and lots of action (and it really does have a great couple of trailers). The problem is that they didn’t seem to be able to figure out what kind of movie they wanted to make or how they wanted to play it and the result is that the finished product is just a hot mess.