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Film Review: Gangster Squad (2013)

Director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad was originally scheduled for release in October 2012, but it was delayed until January 2013 due to the July 20, 2012 theater shootingin Aurora, Colorado.  The studio pulled its trailers and decided to re-shoot (no pun intended) a climactic shootout scene in which the antagonists shoot at a theater crowd.  Nonetheless, the re-shoots did

not improve what turned out to be a disappointing film anyway.  To be fair, it is not the absolutely awful movie many critics and viewers have made it out to be. Gangster Squad is a fairly enjoyable, oftentimes brashly violent, genre piece with a star-studded, albeit largely wasted, ensemble cast.  Unfortunately, it is a prime example of Hollywood prioritizing style over substance and glossing over compelling history to make an accessible, fast-paced but pretty predictable, campy run-of-the-mill action flick.


Although the story is “inspired by true events,” the movie’s historicity is far from accurate apart from the fact that Mickey Cohen was a leading gangster in post-WWII era Lost Angeles.  This particular story centers around the incorruptible sergeant John O’Mara and his secretive “gangster squad,” or a small crew of fellow good cops.  Their purpose: eradicate Cohen’s crime syndicate and drive him out of town, with any and all means possible.

Indeed, the comparisons to The Untouchables (1987) and to a somewhat lesser extent L.A. Confidential (1997) are very fitting, but beyond its plot and tone Gangster Squad fails to deliver an equally compelling crime saga.  Rather, it feels like a cheap, cliché-ridden rip-off of these and other films.  The emotional beats are there but most of them never resonate; they are usually just glossed over in order to get to the next shock and awe violent plot moment.  Nevertheless, for genre fans, this should be an enjoyable experience as it delivers the action goodies such viewers look for; just do not expect anything terribly unique or awe-inspiring even in terms of a genre piece.


Director Fleischer has yet to live up to the promise shown in his feature-film directorial debut Zombieland (2009).  His sophomore effort 30 Minutes or Less (2011) was amusing but largely a let-down.  While Gangster Squad is a bit more accessible and entertaining than his last movie, it is still a step below his first feature.  It simply lacks a heart.

Instead, it concentrates more on its style and cinematography, which is actually kind of distracting and counter-productive to the tone it sets and weakens

its homage to its forefathers.  Although director of photography Dion Beebe has painted a vivid and lavish portrait of late 1940s L.A., it comes off as a bit cartoonish (too glossy) and self-aware, which may take some viewers out of the picture a bit (pun intended).   Juxtaposed to the almost animated look of the film and wild violence at times is the uber-serious original musical score by Steve Jablonsky; this is suitably epic but overblown for this feature.  In short, the overall product is extravagant and overstated, which undermines the story’s compelling nature – then again, this is certainly a studio product that hopefully for their sake was not meant to be a serious film but rather an entertaining action movie. 


Nonetheless, with the stellar cast assembled, audiences could not help but want more out of it.  Josh Brolin turns in a dedicated but serviceable heroic performance as O’Mara.  Sean Penn, with loads of somewhat distracting prosthetics and makeup, chews the scenery/hams it up as Cohen; he leaves a solid impression as an over-the-top evil gangster.  Ryan Gosling raises his voice an octave for a noir feel but his character, sergeant Jerry Wooters, is thinly written, though Gosling does his best to humanize him (but he is a pretty stock character).  His chemistry with the beautiful and talented Emma Stone is still evident (after first appearing together in the hilarious and touching rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love.), but she is almost completely wasted beyond her looks in this picture; her character is little more than a damsel in distress as the gangster’s heart-of-gold love interest.  Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi, and Robert Patrick are all game in various “fun” roles as members of O’Mara’s gangster squad, but they have little time to leave a lasting impression.  Nick Nolte makes a short appearance beyond a simple cameo as Chief of Police Parker, who commissions O’Mara and his clandestine crew.

Overall, Gangster Squad is entertaining, but it is nowhere near the classic it perhaps sets out to be and certainly could have been with the caliber of the cast and crew.  While its delayed release into January definitely hurt its box office results, this probably would not have fared all that much better in the heat of the summer; a late summer release seems more fitting for this genre piece.  Parts are “cool” and much of it can be deemed “exciting,” replete with slick imagery and slow-mo shootouts, but it is a temporary high for what turned out to be an unremarkable, largely forgettable flick.  If interested, see it as a matinee at most; otherwise a VOD/rental release is more suitable.


Gangster Squad – 6/10






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