This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 20th January 2013
Gangster Squad is a bit of a mixed bag. You think it’s going to be stuffed to the brim with stolen cash, then discover some of it is actually counterfeit, though there is delight to be found at the occasional diamond rolling round at the bottom.
Set in post-World War Two Los Angeles, a bunch of cops join forces to bring down the city’s chief gangster, Mickey Cohen (a prostheticised Sean Penn, ruthlessly cruel despite looking rather like someone out of Dick Tracy). Jaded by years on the battlefield, the renegade officers shrug off the restrictions of their badges and use all force necessary to fight this latest incarnation of evil. Meanwhile, Cohen uses brute force to extract confessions and penance from hapless henchmen (the opening scene bars no holds in its depiction of someone being drawn and not-quite-quartered).
The all-star cast includes heartthrob du jour Ryan Gosling, playing a much lighter version of his Drive thug with a nonchalant gait and the nerve to seduce Cohen’s girlfriend Grace (Emma Stone, cute as a button but too young to convince as a world-weary moll). Gosling’s morally-flexible cop is one of a motley crew conscripted by Josh Brolin’s honourable sergeant-with-fists-of-steel to help defend the city. Actually, it’s Brolin’s pregnant wife, played by The Killing’s Mireille Enos, who determines who he’ll cast in his band of bad-asses. She needs her man home safely since they are “expecting company”. As clichéd a set-up as that is, Brolin and Enos have an easy chemistry and provide most of the film’s rare moments of quality.
Director Ruben Fleischer made Zombieland, a brilliant pastiche of zombie horror movies that provided hilarity and gross-outs in equal measure. His penchant for stylistic flourishes is somewhat tempered in this 1940s period piece, but the odd slo-mo affectation slips through, feeling slightly out of place in what is otherwise a gorgeously-costumed, lit and photographed evocation of Hollywoodland.
However, the story and dialogue is distinctly undercooked. 1997’s Oscar-winning LA Confidential took a similar tack of having police take the law into their own hands, and did it with far greater grit and panache (catapulting Antipodeans Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe into Hollywoodland for real).
By comparison Gangster Squad suffers from parading one-dimensional characters (what’s someone like Grace doing with a villain like Cohen? Why should we care for her?), while relying on the stereotypically lightweight make-up of its misfit squad: the Mexican (hilariously called Navidad Ramirez), the Negro (as he’d have been at the time), the bespectacled technical nerd, the grizzled old-timer. It’s all fun and games, but frustratingly unsubstantial.
Ultimately all we get is lots of pistol-play, engrossing enough at the time but quickly forgettable. With everything it has going for it, it’s a shame that Gangster Squad wasn’t able to roll out the big guns.