Review: "Gangster Squad" Disastrously Opts for All Brawn and No Brains

Not even formidable actors like Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling can bolster this weightless misfire.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Stars: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Nick Nolte
Running time: 110 minutes
Rating: R
Score: 3/10

Some directors just aren't right for certain film projects. Imagine Lincoln as helmed by Michael Bay, replete with unnecessary Civil War battle scenes where cannons cause ridiculously abrasive explosions. Or the Farrelly brothers' take on Life of Pi, with the CGI tiger being voiced by Owen Wilson and cracking wise throughout the entire movie.

One's own distinctive sensibilities best befit the proper material. And when one thinks of Ruben Fleischer's short, two-pic filmography thus far, a sweeping crime drama-thriller in the vein of L.A. Confidential does not come to mind. From his impressively livewire debut, Zombieland (2009), to last year's disappointingly hollow heist comedy 30 Minutes or Less, Fleischer's instincts have been defined as fast-moving and quite cartoonish. Which also describes Gangster Squad, although, in this case, it's unbecoming.

An artistic, if not ambitious, ball-drop of massive proportions, Gangster Squad is that rare, never pleasant example of a film loaded with superb actors and riding on a fruitful, robust plot that goes nowhere fast and repeatedly crashes into unintentional humor along the way. With so much potential at his disposal, Fleischer wastes it all, handling a gangster-filled historical exercise in A-list exhibition with all the subtlety and command of Zack Snyder's similarly overdone Sucker Punch—which is to say, none at all.

It's an exceedingly, and noticeably, fictionalized fictionalization of a bunch of Los Angeles cops and detectives, led by Sergeant John O'Mara (a surly, atypically dull Josh Brolin), who ditch their badges, disregard the law, and go on a guerrilla warfare mission to take down New York crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn his face covered in prosthetics and range limited to one snarling, goofy evil note) in 1949. O'Mara recruits a random crew of hot-heads and too-cool-for-school rebels, including the charming playboy (Ryan Gosling, distractingly, and pointlessly, talking in a mousy, pussyfooted pitch), the token black cop who's there to offer a couple obligatory racial snaps (Anthony Mackie), the old salt who thinks he's a cowboy and addresses everyone as "hoss" (Robert Patrick), the tech nerd who wants to impress his only son (Giovanni Ribisi), and the altogether useless sixth wheel (Michael Peña). They form an all-star team of underwritten movie characters.

It feels a bit unfair to attack screenwriter Will Beall's hackneyed, highly problematic script, since, before Fleischer signed on to direct, filmmakers like Ben Affleck, Darren Arnonofsky, and Paul Greengrass were reportedly in contention. And, you'd think, none of them would've cared if Beall's earlier draft wasn't infinitely better than what Fleischer ended up making. Conjecture, yes, but it's logical to project such a production history.

As it stands, the script, amongst its many inefficiencies, goes overboard on the hammy dialogue (Gosling inquires about a sexy dame with, "Who's the tomato?") and proposes deep-rooted relationships between sets of characters that aren't given any on-screen basis for viewers to legitimately accept. In Gosling's case, there's an unconvincing love connection with Cohen's main squeeze (played by Emma Stone, who's given absolutely nothing to do) that starts off as a from-the-club-to-the-bedroom jump-off and suddenly, sloppily, turns into a star-crossed soulmates ordeal. For Brolin, there's a walking, talking cliché waiting at home in the form of The Killing star Mirielle Enos, who admirably gives her all to a character that's basically your standard cop's-nervous-wife-at-home archetype. And, of course, she's also pregnant.

Which could also describe Fleischer's visual approach in Gangster Squad, a bloated, borderline animated veneer that looks and feels like Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy drained of all its enjoyable campiness. There's poorly handled, exploitation-level camp here, sure (Penn's Cohen makes his appropriately malicious debut by having a guy chained to moving vehicles and ripped in half), but Fleischer can't ever decide what Gangster Squad should be: a snappy gangster show set in a heightened reality, a gritty extension of Brian De Palma's far superior The Untouchables, or a wink-wink comedy that (desperately) seeks a high-five from its audience.

By the time Gangster Squad reaches its video game-like climax inside the Park Plaza Hotel—where Tommy guns, bullets, and anonymous goons' corpses reach dopily high counts—it's not even worth putting into any of those thematic categories. Just file it under "Epic Fails."

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Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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