Fact: When you put Ryan Gosling in 1940s clothing, a movie can’t be terrible.
The long delayed Gangster Squad will finally hit theaters this weekend and while it was not as sophisticated a film as I had anticipated, the stellar cast and interesting story almost make up for what the film is lacking in depth. We walked out of Gangster Squad entertained, which can’t be discounted. However, Gangster Squad was ultimately disappointing; it held the promise to be a much greater movie, but the film seems to be content with just being average.
The film is loosely based on the real life gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a Jewish man who used his skill in boxing to earn respect and work his way up the ladder of organized crime. He is slowly taking over Los Angeles, a fact that doesn’t seem to upset many in law enforcement as many of them are on Mickey’s payroll. The Police Chief (Nick Nolte), however, isn’t on the take and assembles a secret team of police officers (Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick) under the leadership of Sgt. O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who has proven he isn’t afraid to go up against Mickey. Their mission is to eradicate Mickey’s syndicate by any means necessary. They aren’t charged with making arrests; they are charged with going to war with Cohen’s gang. If that means that they have to kill a few people and work outside the law, so be it. The situation is further complicated when Gosling falls for Cohen’s arm candy, Grace (Emma Stone).
The acting is really the strength of this film. They have assembled a great team of actors headed up by Penn and Brolin, who really seem to embrace the roles that they are playing. Mickey Cohen is the showier of the roles and Penn really does a great job of bringing Mickey to life. Cohen is a terrifying man whose moods can turn on a dime; one moment he will be joking and bantering with reporters, but if one of them asks a question he doesn’t like, he immediately becomes violent and bullying. Penn’s weathered visage only adds to the intimidation factor. Brolin’s character is less defined, but he does well at playing the no-nonsense O’Mara. Brolin has a presence and makes more of O’Mara than was probably in the script. Actually, I suspect that all of the actors made more of their characters than they were written. Gosling and Stone are their usual fantastic selves and they have the same great chemistry that they had in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I do wish that Stone had been given more to do – she’s a great actress, but here her main responsibility is to slink in and out of the room (which she does very well, but there is more to her than that). The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well. It seems clear that the actors are all having a lot of fun.
The film also looks beautiful and relishes in its vintage sets. I happen to have an affinity for the style of the 1940s and all the costumes are lush and the various locations, specifically Slapsy Maxie’s Nightclub, have the look and feel of the time period. It’s all very pretty to look at and the film is peppered with some of the great music of the era.
Unfortunately, the screenplay for Gangster Squad leaves a lot of be desired. While the story of police going to war with a gangster should be a pretty meaty source for the film, the screenplay just isn’t very developed. It felt very paint by numbers to me. The story doesn’t move forward in an organic way; things happen because they have to happen. I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty much the entirety of the conversation that the Police Chief and O’Hara have about setting up the “gangster squad (keeping in mind, they have no previous relationship):
Nolte: “I want to set up a secret team of cops to go to war with Cohen. Destroy his entire operation. Make no arrests.”
That’s it. No real discussion. No hesitation. Just “I’m in.” The entire story moves forward the same way. It all so very predictable. There are also tonal inconsistencies – people are being set on fire in one scene, but a few moments later there is some light hearted comedy. It’s like Gangster Squad couldn’t decide what kind of film it wanted to be. The characters are basically reduced to one characteristic: Brolin (tough), Golsing (ladies’ man), Ribisi (smart), Patrick (good shot), Pena and Mackie (not white). It’s the actors that give them life, nothing else; in the hands of lesser actors, these roles would have been exposed for how flimsy they were written.
Some other thoughts:
- Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are so good together that I really wish that they were a real life couple (sorry Andrew Garfield). He’s so pretty, she’s so pretty – I like to imagine them off being pretty together.
- This movie has absolutely no idea what to do with its minority characters.
- This movie is violent; it’s not in the Django Unchained realm, but there is plenty of brutality. I don’t know that it is excessive – it is, after all, at its heart a gangster movie, but some people may be unprepared for it.
- Josh Brolin should have never played a young Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black 3; that is now all I see when I look at him.
- Late in the film, Ribisi raises an interesting point – by using their take no prisoners methods, are they really any better than the gangsters? It is a valid question that a more thoughtful movie would have at least addressed. But in this movie, it was dropped almost immediately. I really don’t know why they bothered to even bring it up.
- After many relatively well behaved audiences, I’m disappointed to report that the first screening of 2013 saw the return of bad behavior. The women who were sitting next to us did not shut up through the entire movie. They would quiet down for a few minutes, but then it was right back to chatting away. That behavior just baffles me. They talked the entire time we were waiting in line, the entire time we were in the theater and they were STILL talking when we passed them on our way out. If I hadn’t have been with someone, I probably would have said something. The worst was that they laughed way too loud at things AND giggled like school girls when Gosling did basically anything (these were women probably in their late twenties). It was infuriating.
The pieces were mostly there for this to be a much better movie. It’s a testament to the actors that I found this film as entertaining as I did. The screenplay felt more like an outline for the screenplay than the final draft and it ultimately dragged the movie down. Gangster Squad was still mildly entertaining, but I also have a tremendous amount of goodwill for the actors involved. I left the film more troubled by what could have been rather than what was. The actors deserved better and with a different screenwriter, I think this film would have been much more sophisticated and nuanced. I was really looking forward to Gangster Squad, but it wasn’t worth my anticipation.
Gangster Squad opens nationwide January 11th.