Film Review: Gangster Squad (dir by Ruben Fleischer)

Gangster Squad

Do you remember Gangster Squad?

This film, which tells the story of hard-boiled cops and psychotic gangsters in 1940s Los Angeles, was originally meant to be released in September of 2012 but the release date was moved back because the film originally featured a gun battle in a movie theater.  After the real-life movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, that scene was reshot and the release of Gangster Squad was delayed until January of this year.  The critics absolutely hated it, audiences stayed away, and Gangster Squad was the first high-profile flop of 2013.

I was among those who ignored the film when it was first playing at theaters.  After all, it was January and I was more interested in following the Oscar race than going to see a film that, by all accounts, was somewhat terrible.  However, now that Gangster Squad is showing up on a nearly nightly basis on Cinemax, I recently got a chance to see the movie and you know what?

The critics were wrong.

Gangster Squad tells a familiar story.  In fact, the film features not a single character or plot twist that hasn’t shown up in another movie.  The setting is Los Angeles in the 1940s.  Ruthless gangster Mickey Cohen (a totally over-the-top Sean Penn) is the king of the city’s underworld.  How crazy is Mickey Cohen?  He’s so crazy that, when we first see him, he’s watching as another gangster is literally ripped in half.  He’s so crazy that, in the middle of a gun battle, he yells, “Here comes Santy Claus!” as he fires his machine gun.  That’s how crazy Mickey Cohen is.

Sean Penn in Gangster Squad

Seriously crazy.

Fortunately, righteous police chief William H. Parker (Nick Nolte) refuses to allow a little thing like due process to keep him from pursuing Mickey.  Parker calls Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to his office and, after delivering a long and flowery monologue that verges on incoherence, he finally explains that O’Mara’s mission is to put together an elite squad of cops and to take Mickey out by any means necessary!  (Usually, I try to exercise some restraint when it comes to punctuation but Gangster Squad is one of those films that demands exclamation points.)

This is followed by a series of properly colorful scenes in which O’Mara recruits his gangster squad.

Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is a cynical World War II veteran who is, at first, skeptical of O’Mara and his squad.  Wooters, however, changes his mind after a saintly shoeshine boy is gunned down in front of him.  Wooters is also having an affair with Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who happens to also be Cohen’s girlfriend.

Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) is a black cop who is good with a knife and who lost his cousin to the heroin distributed by Cohen’s mob.  Watching the friendly and playful interaction between Harris and all of the film’s white characters provides us with one of our first clues that Gangster Squad is not necessarily aiming to be a historically accurate portrait of America in the 1940s.

Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is a wiretapper and a family man.  Keeler’s fate is pretty much sealed the minute that he tells O’Mara that he’s willing to risk death just to make the world a better place for his son.

Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) is a former old west gunslinger who now spends his time killing gangsters.  Max, we’re told, may be old but he’s also personally shot over a 100 gangsters.  Max also has a younger partner, an honest cop named Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena).


The Gangster Squad

As you can probably guess at this point, there’s not a single cliché that is not employed by Gangster Squad.  However, and this is what I think several critics missed, the film deliberately takes its clichés to such an extreme that they go from being flaws to being strengths.  By so enthusiastically going overboard in its embrace of the conventions of the gangster film genre and, at the same time, acknowledging the fact that the audience is also familiar with those clichés, Gangster Squad creates its own vibrant and compulsively watchable fantasy world.  The world of Gangster Squad has little to do with any sort of historical reality.  Instead, it’s a  world constructed solely out of other gangster movies.

Taking all of this (and the fact that the film is directed by Ruben Fleischer of Zomieland and 30 Minutes or Less fame) into consideration, it’s pretty obvious that Gangster Squad is not a film that’s meant to be taken seriously.  And yet, that’s what so many critics did when the film was first released in January.  Instead of appreciating the film for paying over-the-top homage to the gangster films of the past, critics attacked it for being an example of style over substance.

And, to give the critics their due, they were exactly right.  There is no substance to Gangster Squad.  Instead, the film is a total celebration of style.

And what style!  In Fleischer’s hands, 1940s Los Angeles is a colorful wonderland of pure excess, a vibrant landscape of dark alleys and swanky nightclubs that literally glow on-screen and are populated by tough men and sultry women in clothing that might not have been found hanging in every closet in the 40s but should have been.  (Seriously, when Emma Stone first appears on-screen, she’s wearing a red gown that is simply to die for.)

This Christmas, I want both Ryan Gosling and the dress.

This Christmas, I want both Ryan Gosling and the dress.

For the viewer who is willing to give themselves over to the film’s over-the-top aesthetic and are willing to appreciate it for what it is (as opposed to condemning it for what it isn’t), Gangster Squad is a watchable, entertaining, and fun movie.  And what’s so bad about that?

I’m glad that I finally got a chance to see Gangster Squad.  Is it one of the great gangster films?  No.  The great gangster films have both style and substance but, quite frankly, if I can only have one than I would prefer something stylish and fun like Gangster Squad to something like Killing Them Softly.

(Then again, I would prefer just about anything to sitting through Killing Them Softly for a second time.)

So, enjoy Gangster Squad.  Watch it for the style.  Have fun.  And most importantly, remember that critics are as often wrong as they are right.

Emma Stone in Gangster Squad