2013 // USA // Ruben Fleischer //January 8, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Ronnies 20 Cine)
It is hopefully uncontroversial that even the slightest, most straightforward genre exercise can be a gratifying work of cinema if the filmmakers regard both the material and the viewer with respect. Nowhere is it written that a film (least of all a work of Hollywood entertainment) must say something profound, or that a film laden with cliches must also be a work of high-minded deconstruction or winking satire. Doing just One Thing and doing it exceptionally well can be a deceptively tricky feat, and when a filmmaker pulls off such a stunt, it’s a marvelous sight to behold. (Witness, for example, Sam Mendes’ pitch-perfect Skyfall.) Even a film whose pleasures are almost entirely superficial and fleeting—a puff of cinematic meringue, if you will—can coast for quite a distance solely on charm.
Even by such modest standards, however, Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad feels like a listless chore, more absorbed with genre box-checking and wallowing in dull, repetitive violence than with actually engaging the viewer. On paper, the broad outlines of the story are promising: The film is very loosely based on Paul Lieberman’s esteemed 2008 Los Angeles Times series (and his follow-up book) on the LAPD’s secret anti-Mafia task force, which employed mostly illegal means to pursue boxer-turned-mobster Mickey Cohen and other “Eastern hoods” in the 1940s and 50s. Gangster Squad therefore unfolds in what one might call James Ellroy Country: a post-War landscape of housing tracts, glittering nightspots, automotive grime, and Hollywood artifice. This provides production designer Maher Ahmad with a tempting sandbox in which to play, but Will Beal’s crude, predictable script seems to understand the setting mostly through third-hand tropes. It’s a Disneyland version of 1949 Los Angeles, bereft of human habitation or any sense of real mortal peril.
Desperate to stop Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) before his stranglehold over Los Angeles’ underworld is complete, police captain Parker (Nick Nolte) hand picks the bull-headed Irish-American Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to lead a clandestine squad of cops that will operate without official sanction, department backup, or legal restrictions. Hardened and honorable but not too bright, the WWII veteran O’Mara isn’t so much the Last Honest Cop as he is an undomesticated warrior, unable to back down until his Enemy is defeated. In one of the screenplay’s few memorable touches, O’Mara’s very pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos) selects the other members of the squad from the dossiers piled on their kitchen table, reasoning that the men who are watching her spouse’s back should meet her standards of toughness.
The ranks of the unit eventually include an appropriately diverse array of archetypes: Kennard (Robert Patrick), the Old One; Harris (Anthony Mackie), the Black One; Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), the Smart One; and Wooters (Ryan Gosling), the World-Weary Womanizing One. Kennard’s eager beaver partner Ramirez (Michael Peña) eventually joins group as well, filling the role of the Latino One. Unfortunately, the film’s treatment of these cops is as reductive as it sounds, and as a result, nearly every effort to summon a laugh or a tear lands with a hollow thud. (Patrick’s drawly quips are the only lines that succeed in eliciting a chuckle here and there.) The cynical Wooters is the sole cop character who is allowed an arc, and the event that brings him around to O’Mara’s righteous viewpoint is so bald-faced and repugnant that it is downright astonishing that the filmmakers had the shamelessness to include it.
Once the squad is assembled, the story slogs ahead through a blood-soaked cops-and-robbers war: O’Mara’s team attacks Cohen’s empire with arson, beatings, and summary executions, and after suffering some fatal setbacks, they finally bring down the crime lord himself. Oh, and along the way Wooters falls into bed with Cohen’s slinky moll, Grace (Emma Stone), which adds a wrinkle or two to the Good Guys' mission. It’s rudimentary stuff, which isn’t necessarily defeating, if Fleischer or Beal regarded the story as anything other than an opportunity to gape as cardboard cops and foam latex gangsters spray artfully recreated post-War Los Angeles with hot lead. It’s hollow and cartoonish, and even on a purely adolescent level, it’s not much fun.
It doesn’t help that the actors are mostly sleepwalking through the proceedings. None of the performers but Penn is actively bad, but only rarely is a sense of genuine human emotion permitted to peek through the eye-rolling dialogue. Penn, meanwhile, at least seems to sense that the awful script gives him carte blanche to play Cohen as a sneering, spittle-flecked comic book villain. Nonetheless, for this critic's taste, Penn doesn’t camp it up nearly enough, and the result is just an ugly, unpleasant portrayal that leaves no lasting impression.
Equally unpleasant is the look of Gangster Squad, which seems to have been subjected to a drastic post-production color correction and softening in order to approximate a deranged person’s conception of “retro”. It’s the kind of digital tinkering that can work in fantastical films like 300 and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but here it’s just distracting, especially given that it is inconsistently applied. In the close-ups during an early nightclub scene, Stone’s skin is so polished and smooth that she looks like a creepy porcelain doll; later, the freckles dusted across her cheeks are permitted to peek through. It’s a nitpicky detail, but it underlines the sensation of slipshod excess that characterizes Gangster Squad: the film feels naggingly like a work in which great effort and expense is expended on not giving a damn.