"Gangster Squad" Lacks Spark, Ultimately Fizzles

After 2009’s highly successful “Zombieland,” director Ruben Fleischer was likely handed a pile of money to make whatever he felt like making, some of which he promptly wasted on the putrid “30 Minutes Or Less.” His latest, mob movie “Gangster Squad,” is even more wasteful, crammed with lots of impressive visuals and absolutely nothing else. His all-star cast is rendered irrelevant by a wilted screenplay (written by Will Beall, based on a book by Paul Lieberman) and his action sensibilities are way off the mark. Despite the sleek cinematography, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on most of the time.

It’s 1949. Josh Brolin stars as a cop, Sargeant John O’Mara, assigned to go after a big-time mobster, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who’s quickly overrunning Los Angeles with prostitutes and drug dealers. Within 20 minutes of the opening titles, we get the obligatory “I’m putting a team together” montage, and Brolin is joined by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick, and Giovanni Ribisi, all fellow cops. Their mission is off the books, of course. Nick Nolte is on hand as O’Mara’s boss, Chief Parker, and Emma Stone’s character, Grace Faraday, acts as a mole for the titular Gangster Squad – she lives with Cohen but she falls for Gosling’s character, Sargeant Jerry Wooter.

O’Mara gets the most character development – he’s got a worrisome wife at home with a child on the way – and Brolin milks his inner gruffness for all that it’s worth. Wooter gets just as much screen time, but Gosling is limited to using his voice to make an impression. The rest of the crew has to fend for narrative scraps with Peña criminally getting the least to do. Sean Penn, on the other hand, rips into his dialogue with reckless abandon, as if every word were a juicy piece of steak. Sometimes it’s intimidating, other times it’s silly, but it’s always memorable. But a lack of personality is one of the picture’s biggest problems and Penn can’t carry that weight by himself.

The high production value is the only quality that makes the film mostly watchable. The neon glow of a late-40s Sunset Strip is mesmerizing and the attention to detail allows us to sink back into that world every time we’re pulled out by a strange narrative choice or general boredom. Some scenes have a definite “Sin City” vibe – the heightened visuals have no use for realism – and some of the slow motion effects are astounding. It’s a shame that so much of the film abandons the use of slow-mo. Unfortunately, many of the action beats are crippled by a poor sense of geography. I was frequently unsure which characters were involved in each scene and actors occasionally appear out of the ether without explanation.

The bland narrative is almost forgivable until it takes several completely boneheaded turns in the third act. After a plethora of dangerous shootouts, O’Mara decides to bully a judge into signing a warrant for Cohen’s arrest. Might it have been wise to try that before shooting up the whole town? The final showdown is even dumber, in all its “let’s throw down our weapons and fight like real men” glory. What was Fleischer trying to do with “Gangster Squad?” It plays more like a demo reel than a movie anyone would pay full price to see. Visually? Sure, it’s impressive. But on all other fronts it leaves nothing but a couple muddy footprints and a signpost of misplaced potential. This is as hollow a gangster movie as you’ll find, made even more disappointing by what could have been.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: January 11, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenwriter: Will Beall
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Emma Stone, Sean Penn
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and language)