Gangster Squad (2013)
Dir. Ruben Fleischer
1.5 out of 5
Los Angeles, 1949: beneath the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, a seething underbelly bubbles to the surface thanks to the ambitions of Mickey Cohen, a Chicago gangland transplant with a stranglehold on the city’s vice rackets. To combat this crime wave, the LAPD establishes the “Gangster Squad,” an off-the-books unit led by the righteous Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin). O’Mara’s handpicked – and thoughtfully diverse – detectives are informally joined by Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a maverick and womanizer with a soft spot for Cohen’s moll, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Together they dispense beatings and bullets by the truckload, if only to keep up with the brazen Cohen’s own bid to turn the city’s streets into Swiss cheese.
Gangster Squad was infamously delayed from its original 2012 release date in the wake of last summer’s cinema shooting in Aurora, Colorado. It is easy to see why. The film’s violence could easily be considered excessive even if it hadn’t accidentally stumbled into the renewed national debate on gun control. That’s presumably why director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) takes great pains to establish his heroes as beer-and-BBQ-hangin’ bros. But the film clearly sends the message that the only “real” cops are thes guns-blazing cowboy types – one of them, the sharpshooting elder statesman Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), actually is a cowboy. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file is so inept (or corrupt) that there’s nothing to stop a mobster from turning a swanky hotel into an urban fortress bristling with machine guns. Lost within all the clamor and faux-noir posturing are intriguing performances by Gosling, whose chemistry with Stone is wasted in a handful of go-nowhere scenes, and Sean Penn, who plays Cohen as a scenery-chewing gargoyle with a face contorted in a permanent mask of contempt.
The preposterous lack of distinction between LA’s teeming underworld and its innocent public spaces is just one of many ways in which the film doesn’t seem completely thought through. For a movie that glorifies law enforcement, Gangster Squad is pretty insulting to the day-to-day competency of the Los Angeles Police Department. However, it’s arguably more insulting to its audience, positing a vision of late-1940s Los Angeles as a glittery deathtrap where a night on the town so often ends in a deadly firefight or a massive explosion. Based on the real story of a covert police unit designed to run Eastern mobsters out of LA, there’s plenty of potential in the concept of a post-war metropolis recalibrating its moral compass during a time of economic and social upheaval. But Gangster Squad is far too simplistic to carry any real impact, with any nuanced ideas ingloriously belched out of this muddle of a movie, hard and fast, like the contents of a tommy gun.