It’s a bit disappointing that Ruben Fleischer‘s Gangster Squad can live in such a rich setting and still feel so light. As seen through a grand tradition of films dating back over 70 years, post-war Los Angeles was boozy, hedonistic, dangerous, and dark. Gangster Squad waters down this colorful world, and simply coasts on being an amusing, frivolous action film. There’s nothing wrong with that, and with a strong cast at his disposal, Fleischer finds a nice blend between the style he brought to Zombieland and the spirit of the time period. Unfortunately, a thin plot and even thinner characters make Gangster Squad as intense as a drive-by shooting and just as fleeting.
Brutal gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is turning Los Angeles into a war zone. His bloodthirsty ambition to seize power from rival factions is getting innocent citizens caught in the crossfire, and Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) wants to fight back. Hard-charging honest cop Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is tasked with gathering a small, off-the-books force to fight back against Cohen by any means necessary. The group includes the smooth-talking Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), knife-wielding Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), tech guy Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and neophyte Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña). The situation becomes slightly more complicated for Wooters when he falls for Cohen’s girl, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
The relationship between Jerry and Grace is emblematic of how little investment Gangster Squad puts into its characters. Their relationship feels perfunctory. Jerry is already motivated to go after Cohen for a reason independent of his relationship with Grace. Even if Grace was his motivation, it would be a flimsy motivation since we barely learn anything about her other than “damsel in distress”. The descriptions I provided in the above paragraph are about as deep as the characterization goes. I cannot tell you anything more about Harris other than “he’s black and he throws knives.” This cast is far too talented for their one-dimensional characters.
They do the best with what they have, and Fleischer tries to do the same with Will Beale‘s serviceable script. Gangster Squad has a little trouble at the outset trying to find its rhythm, but it begins to glide once the humor and chemistry between the squad begins to fall into place. Dion Beebe‘s cinematography is essential in giving the film its suave look, and it blends surprisingly well with Fleischer’s flourishes like speed-ramping and a memorable raid set to the number of Carmen Miranda-esque nightclub performer.
Sadly, when compared to other films in the genre, Gangster Squad can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. Even the screenplay seems to acknowledge its limitations as characters make cursory references to their experiences in World War II. These are men who can’t stop fighting, but the weight of war never comes off as a heavy burden. Instead, Gangster Squad lightly walks in the footsteps of other crime flicks, most notably Brian De Palma‘s The Untouchables. But whereas the 1987 crime flick had memorable characters, dialogue, and a tremendous performance from Sean Connery, Gangster Squad is a fun but forgettable action flick that should be far better considering the strength of its premise and the talent of its cast.
[Correction: I originally put that The Untouchable opened in 1990. I have updated the article with the correct year of release, 1987.]