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Gangster Squad: Bullets and Boredom

Michael C here to kick off the year with my first review of 2013 for a movie I noticed had slipped through the cracks in the rush of Oscar Nomination Fever. But surely 2013 will get better than this! 

Gangster Squad is a film haunted by the ghosts of its superior cinematic ancestors. Some films gain resonance from evoking earlier titles in their genre but Ruben Fleischer’s crime saga is such a creative void that it can’t wrestle the audience’s attention away from the specters of film noir past. So much more rewarding to occupy one’s mind with fond memories of Chinatown, than to watch characters we don’t care about exchange gunfire in action scenes we can’t follow for reasons not worth understanding. 

Penn vs. Brolin in "Gangster Squad"

The most obvious film intruding on Gangster Squad (2013) is The Untouchables (1987) - at times the new film borders on a beat-for-beat retelling of the earlier story with Al Capone switched out for Mickey Cohen... [more]

The film focuses on efforts to halt Cohen (Sean Penn, doing what he can) in his total takeover of 1949-era Los Angeles. Cohen has the legal system in his pocket, so Josh Brolin’s last honest cop steps outside the law to assemble a crack team of misfit officers in order to wage direct war against the mobster. 

The Untouchables is no masterpiece, but after Gangster Squad I was left with a newfound appreciation for Brian De Palma’s earlier prohibition tale which has Mamet’s punchy dialogue, Ennio Morricone’s sweeping music and a terrific star turn from Sean Connery to recommend it. Also, when DePalma echoes an earlier cinematic landmark, as he did with his homage to Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa steps shootout, he does it with a gusto that honors the source material.

All Gangster Squad manages to do is to pose its all-star cast in cinematographer Dion Beebe’s gauzy turquoise glow as they alternate between exchanging bullets and ancient crime movie clichés. The screenplay occasionally trips over an idea or two on the way to the next incoherent shootout but it never seems to notice. Fleischer's film finds no dramatic conflict at all with the ethics of abandoning due process to get results. The bad guys are bad and if stopping them means the good guys need to roam the streets indiscriminately spraying machine gun fire and staging impromptu executions, then what’s the problem? Hip hip hooray for the men in the white hats.

what happened to their chemistry?

Elsewhere Ryan Gosling romances one of Cohen's girls, played by Emma Stone, in a subplot that recalls the Basinger/Crowe romance from LA Confidential in a way that does the new film no favors. After generating so many sparks in Crazy Stupid Love the pair this time couldn't have less chemistry than if they were brother and sister in real life. Stone in particular is utterly sunk by lines like "Where have you been all my miserable life?"

The elephant in the room with Gangster Squad is the fact that it was pushed back from a September release due to an ill-timed scene involving a massacre in a movie theater. I suppose there is some conclusion to be drawn from the film’s consequence-free depiction of gun violence where the good guys can open fire in crowds without hitting bystanders and receive bullet wounds that don’t slow them down for an instant, but really, it’s not worth dragging a substantive discussion down to the level of this schlock. Gangster Squad's non-stop rain of bullets doesn’t signify much more than a total lack of imagination on the part of the filmmakers. There’s not even any discernable strategy to the shootouts. The good guys just run right at the crooks the way little kids run at each other while making finger guns and yelling, “Pow! Pow! Pow! I got you! Fall down!”

Cheers! Here's to Gosling's next filmWhen faced with a clunker like this, the only thing left to do is to pick through the wreck to see if anything of value that can be salvaged. On that level, I was intrigued by the Gosling performance. Most of the other actors play their cardboard character more or less straight, but not Gosling. Left to play a snappy charmer with lines devoid of snap or charm, he compensates by cranking up the mannerisms and odd rhythms in an attempt to simulate a compelling character where none exists. It borders on glib self-parody in this context but I found it to be an admirable, almost Walken-like inability to be dull. The tension between his matinee idol looks, and his allergy to being anything approaching a typical leading man, recalls an early Johnny Depp. Gosling is still fascinating to watch.

So from Gangster Squad I gleaned a meditation on the charisma of one our biggest new stars and a reminder that it’s been way too long since I re-watched LA Confidential. You are better off skipping right to LA Confidential or a better Gosling film. Pretty much any other Gosling film qualifies.  D 


You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm or read his blog Serious Film.

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Reader Comments (21)

Terrific review. The trailer shows what an embarrassment this must be for all involved. And I kept wondering why Penn was made up to look like Elephant Man Jr.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I sometimes wonder if the reviews would be better if it hadn't had that PR trouble with the theater massacre trailer shot. People do tend to go all in or all out against movies these days. Very polarized landscape for movies these days. But i'm surprised at just how negative the reviews, and this one, are.

especially shocked to hear that Gosling and Stone have misplaced there previously snappy chemistry. I looked for a photo together of them at the premiere to match the photo from the crazy stupid love premiere and weirdly they aren't shot together. There's always people between them. Hmmmm.

January 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nat -

If it weren't for the delayed release I'm guessing the response would have been even worse. The trailer does a decent job concealing what a total dud this one is.

If it came out in early Fall when everyone was paying attention and hopes were high, the response would have been swift and merciless. The script is flat out awful, and a cat running across a keyboard could have done a better job editing. A January release when people are distracted by Oscars and Sundance is the ideal place for Gangster Squad.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

The title alone demonstrates a cringe-inducing creative sloth. Ugh.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Brookesboy -

Your post inspired me to look into it a little more because the question of Penn's appearance didn't sit right with me. In LA Confidential he has a bit part and he looks NOTHING like the Dick Tracy villain he appears to be in Gangster Squad. A quick google search shows that, not surprisingly, LA Confidential was pretty accurate in its casting, while I don't know what the hell Squad was up to.

Going to post a quick side-by-side at my blog.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Michael, I just couldn't figure out what was going on with Penn's face. He seemed to look alien. He looked more pulverized than DeNiro in Raging Bull.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Well, frankly, this is some TERRIBLE news for that prospective Justice League movie, with Will Beall currently on writing duty. I'm guessing word gets out this is a turkey, the Justice League movie gets cancelled and they go forward with Guillermo Del Toro's "Dark Universe" idea instead. Quick pointer: If they want to try to do that like The Avengers, at the very least get Benh Zeitlin to do Swamp Thing. At best (speaking as someone who's more into "the scheme"), it's a high grossing iconic film that manages to actually launch the DC Cinematic Universe, in the middle, it's a second masterpiece that financially flopped and at the worst it'll be a financial flop that is the definition of "interesting failure", even if it stalled the idea of a DCCU for a while.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

"The trailer does a decent job concealing what a total dud this one is."

I have to disagree there, Michael, I think the trailer is atrocious. I thought if the reviews were solid I'd give it a glance but this is making me bypass it completely. Love what you wrote about Gosling, though, he's been fascinating to me since a little show called Breaker High up here in Canada.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDanny Hall

No reaction? I post comments partially for discussion purposes, so long as there's some tie, however tangential, to the article. C'mon. Even if it's not directly on topic and only tied due to a common screenwriter, I'd think there'd be more interest.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

If anything, the post-production issues probably allowed for more critics to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. I didn't like it - I wished it'd either been more serious like THE UNTOUCHABLES or LA CONFIDENTIAL, or had gone more crazy insane like DICK TRACY (which Sean Penn's make-up is obviously veering towards) or THE BLACK DAHLIA. And, yeah, Emma Stone looks particularly lost at sea, sadly.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn


First - It would be unfair to condemn a screenwriter's potential based solely on this one dud.

Second - The idea of Benh Zeitlin getting immediately sucked into directing a comic book rehash depresses me beyond my ability to express in words.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Michael C.: I'm surprised you went to L.A. Confidential and Paul Guilfoyle's 10 seconds of screen time as Mickey Cohen for comparison, and not Harvey Keitel's Oscar-nominated performance as Cohen in Bugsy.

Also...can you fix "Al Copen" up there? Thanks.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.

Michael C.: My surmise that Beall might well get kicked off the Justice League movie, possibly resulting in it's cancellation is not about Will Beall's talent (or lack thereof), it's about the justified paranoia at the corporate end. If DC seriously wants to do a Marvel style cinematic universe in the near future, which is a delicate enterprise to say the least, they just CAN'T (ugh) afford another Green Lantern. And with Will Beall's first cinematic script winding up a dud, would you blame DC for not wanting to risk it? If that ultimately means cancellation of the main Justice League film due to a lack of interested talent and tossing their eggs into the Dark Universe basket? So be it. As for Zeitlin: It's a perfect fit of concept (sentient plant that thinks of itself as formerly human), director (the mucky, swamp idolizing concepts of Beasts of the Southern Wild) and timing (DC also needing desperately to get a DCCU off the ground to compete with Marvel.) I wouldn't want him to be forced to do more than one film (I may buy into the idea of a collective film universe for the superhero universes, mostly because it's the only real way (outside of animation) to get superheroes realized with the proper budget, but I wouldn't want him lost from indie oddities for too long), but I'd love him to at least help out the superhero company that, in the past TWENTY FIVE YEARS, has only managed to get a competent Batman film to the silver screen. Seriously, I wouldn't be disappointed if Zeitlin does it, considering DC's track record on potential franchises aside from Batman is this: Steel, Catwoman, Francis Lawrence's Constantine, The Spirit (even though I kind of like it (B), I'm also forced to admit it's a one off of Frank Miller parodying himself, not a serious franchise or great film), Jonah Hex and Green Lantern. That's a company so desperate for something new, ANYTHING new, to be an actual hit that they might decide to not interfere as much as in Marvel's more regimented process.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

On top of the one's I mentioned, there's also the terribly muddled and confused Superman Returns, which had no sense of the time period, refused to replicate Donner's so perfect it hurts lighting style, made Superman very creepy and had boring pacing. And Man of Steel doesn't exactly make me confident they aren't repeating at least some of the same mistakes.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

JP -

Confession - I have never seen Bugsy. It's been hovering near the top of my Netflix queue for years. I checked out a clip just now and he is much more historically accurate than Penn.

Aso, Al Copen? Jesus. How did I miss that. Fixed. Thanks.

January 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterMichael C.

volvagia -- as for responses. i think the thing is, at least for me, often times i dont even know what you're talking about it. Truth. it seems very deep into current comic universe lore and mythology which is totally alien world to me. that might be why people dont respond since i'm not sure how many cinephiles here are really current comic book readers.

as for me i like comic books but i can't get into them currently. every time i pick one up there's no entry point (too complex mythology) and also i'm too cynical. i know that whatever happens it might just be undone by some deus ex machine or retcon so there's no point in feeling anything about any of the drama.

i was burned so badly when i was a kid by the whole Jean Grey / Phoenix thing. I never recovered. ;)

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Nat: I BARELY talked about the comics themselves in the second comment, only summarizing the basic (if weird) concept of just ONE character. Most of that second stab at explaning myself was guessing what back stage drama might be caused by Gangster Squad's bad critical reception, commenting on DC's habitual inability to produce good films out of their material, explaining that, yes, I am open to the idea of both sides having a cinematic universe if they deserve it and that, yes, I think Benh Zeitlin doing just ONE "franchise film" that seems to fit his sensibilities isn't a bad thing.

January 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Sorry, but I would be over the moon if they just called a moratorium on all comic book movies for five years. My cape runneth over.

January 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

brookesboy: The cape's going to be flowing for at least a few years to come, and I refuse to be completely annoyed yet. I'm cynical on the DC front, but, among other things, that's because they seriously thought Keanstutine was a good idea to green light. Marvel's production house hasn't created the total groaners that I would view as truly necessitating the epic anger and cynicism of wanting this gentre canned.

January 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Thanks, Volvagia, for the warning. LOL. Seriously, it's just not my favorite genre, though I thought Raimi did a good job with the first Spidey and I do like Nolan's trilogy. The absolute worst comic book flick has to be that Seth Rogan actrocity The Green Hornet. OMG, that one stings. Rogan is a bad enough actor, but to buy him as a superhero? Beyond even his delusions.

January 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

this movie is interesting to watch..

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January 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkert

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