Film Review – Gangster Squad
Gangster movies have long been a staple of the film industry, dating back to pretty much the beginning of cinema. Traditionally they have been a platform for great characters and stories, and are no stranger to awards. One of the more creative directors to burst onto the scene in the last few years is Ruben Fleischer, so it only feels appropriate that he gave the genre a shot with his latest movie, Gangster Squad. While colorful and entertaining, it isn’t destined to be timeless.
One of the most remarkable things about gangster movies is that they are frequently based on or inspired by real life. Gangster Squad is no exception, tackling the life and times of west coast mob boss Mickey Cohen, though it is in the smaller subset of gangster movies that are driven by the cops rather than the criminals. While the story is inspired by real characters, it is definitely a distillation of events that took place over many years and takes some creative liberties to make things juicier. I’m okay with that—heck, my favorite film of 2012 was Argo—since the reality behind the story seems a bit more mundane.
Fleischer’s style has been driven by making entertaining films. Zombieland was a creative and humorous spin on the zombie genre (while still not really a trailerblazer), and 30 Minutes or Less was a less successful attempt at a buddy comedy. While achieving a fair amount of success, he hasn’t yet completed a project that truly defines him. On that same note, it is hard to not think about The Untouchables while watching this movie—not simply because of the plot of a team of police trying to take down a mob boss, but also because the character arcs in Gangster Squad seem to line up with The Untouchables quite well. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since I really enjoy the older film, and additionally, under Fleischer’s guidance, Gangster Squad feels much more vibrant and dynamic than its predecessor, in line with his past work. I wish they had been a bit more depth to the story, but clearly a decision was made to focus on the action, and in that regard it is mostly a success.
The action of the movie is a lot of fun, albeit a little hard to follow at times. Fleischer’s dynamic style is amped up from his previous work, and I respect his vision, but the fast cutting and increased CGI are a bit overwhelming at times, and the smaller set pieces tended to be the ones that worked best. The focus on style over substance is also a totally acceptable decision, but ultimately it is what seperates this film as one that is simply entertaining, rather than a classic in the sense of movies like The Godfather or Goodfellas. With the exception of Ryan Gosling’s and, to a lesser degree, Emma Stone’s characters, most of the characters are two-dimensional caricatures. Sean Penn’s Cohen has a very entertaining performance, but isn’t given any of the complexity of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone or Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. Penn’s story is presented much more black and white, without the gray.
It isn’t really clear from the trailers, but Josh Brolin is the driving force of the movie. Sure, Gosling and Stone have a nice little subplot, but its heart this is his story. He is the narrator, he is the instigator of almost all of the events, and he has the greatest impact from everything that transpires. Brolin provides a solid if somewhat frustrating base, as he seems to be constantly putting everyone in danger. Meanwhile, while not as noteworthy as his work in past years (Blue Valentine, Drive), Gosling puts in solid performance and is definitely the most complex of the police crew. While this is all still entertaining, it feels like a bit of a waste, since the supporting cast is full of talented and underutilized actors (Anthony Mackie, Nicke Nolte, and Michael Peña, for starters).
As in most gangster movies, while cops are entertaining, it really is the gangsters who shine, and Sean Penn certainly is the brightest performance here. Perhaps it is a bit over the top (imagine him doing an impression of Robert De Niro in The Untouchables), but the passion he puts into his roles is abundantly clear once again. I would be shocked to see any acting nominations come out of the movie, but it would most likely be him.
Gangster Squad doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it doesn’t have any aspirations to do so. It just takes a tried-and-true formula and executes it very well. Fleischer continues to impress with his work and versatility. The film might not set the world on fire, but it certainly is an entertaining way to spend a few hours.
Final Grade: B+