Watching the new Gangster Squad is a bit like checking into one of those giant Vegas theme park hotels and expecting to find yourself in the real Rome, Venice or Paris: the place is luxurious, but utterly fake. The director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall don’t have any knowledge or insight or a fresh take on gangsters or even on the gangster genre: they just seem to be two guys who streamed a bunch of Untouchables episodes from Netflix, then decided to make a movie.
Gangster Squad‘s plot is formed around a historical truth, which is that Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (played by Nick Nolte in the movie), in the post-World War II era, formed a squad within the LAPD (also known as the Intelligence Section, not quite as sexy a title) with the purpose of running off high-powered criminals like the Mob, including the famed gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). This squad didn’t always follow the niceties of the law, making use of unauthorized wiretaps, vigilante tactics and the like. This set of facts has also been at the heart of several of James Ellroy’s classic novels, including LA Confidential, which dug uncomfortably into the lasting damage that such actions did to the participants, the victims and the city.
It would be mean-spirited, but not inaccurate, to call Gangster Squad an LA Confidential for morons. The movie is a cavalcade of crime and war movie cliches, as Parker’s hand-picked head of the unit, John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), puts together his dirty half-dozen heroes. O’Mara himself is a driven family man, complete with a concerned wife (Mireille Enos), who’s nonetheless implacably set on cleaning up the city. His colleagues include ladies man Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), grizzled veteran Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), geek Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), black guy Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and Hispanic guy Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). (The real LAPD of the day wasn’t so effortlessly integrated.) Just in case any predictable plot turns might be overlooked, there’s also the beautiful showgirl Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), Mickey’s moll, who’s also irresistibly drawn to Wooters, who for his part just might be feeling true love for the first time.
Fleischer keeps the bullets flying (he notoriously had to reconceive a key sequence when a Grauman’s Chinese shootout became suddenly controversial after the Aurora massacre), and the movie is handsome enough, with slick photography by Dion Beebe, production design by Maher Ahmad, costumes by Mary Zophres, and plenty of CG to create a storybook version of 1940s Los Angeles. But he and Beall seem determined to scrub the movie of any hint of emotional reality or complication. It’s an interesting footnote to recent film culture that two directors who got their promising starts with zombie movies–Fleischer with Zombieland and Zack Snyder with the remake of Dawn of the Dead–have headed downhill ever since, and in similar ways, with pictures that are increasingly, aggressively superficial and and too broad for their own good. They seem only able to function in a universe so heightened as to be cartoonish. (In the case of Zombieland, the shaggy-dog pace that Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray bring to their performances may have helped as well, something that was absent in the painful 30 Minutes or Less.) We’ll see this summer if Christopher Nolan’s tutelage can save Snyder in time for Man of Steel.
The amount of acting talent wasted is remarkable. Brolin and Gosling walk through their roles, with Gosling, in particular, showing a propensity for preening that makes it feel as though his satiric character from Crazy, Stupid, Love is playing the part. Thinking of which, one assumes that Stone wanted to be in this movie to work again with Fleischer (who gave her one of her first breaks with Zombieland) and Gosling, but she’s not particularly well cast as a femme fatale with a heart of gold, a part that someone from the CW could have played more easily. Penn, in his first big Hollywood production since The Interpreter in 2005, shoves his heavily made-up snout into the camera, bellowing and sweating for all he’s worth like he’s in a stage production and trying to impress a prospective agent in the balcony.
It’s no longer unusual to note that these days television does a better job of storytelling than many movies do. But Gangster Squad, because it zeroes in on a classic TV genre, crystallizes that reality. When you spend scores of millions of dollars on a movie that isn’t as good as an episode of Justified or Person of Interest–let’s not even mention Breaking Bad–there’s something wrong with your model. Gangster Squad, to use an old Albert Brooks phrase, should be sent to movie jail.
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