Aneesh Chaganty

Gangster Squad | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2013 at 7:47 PM

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Gangster Squad

(2013, US, d. Ruben Fleisher)

Winter break is over and I’m back to the movie reviews!

Kicking off the new year in film is the star-studded action-pic Gangster Squad. A film as much about Los Angeles as it is about its characters, Gangster Squad is another addition to the plethora of films that tackle the subject of the city during the 40’s and 50’s. Every few years, another filmmaker decides to take a swing at the raucous, violent, sex, drug, and gang culture of post-WWII Los Angeles. And while plenty of films have gotten it right (BugsyLA Confidential, The Black Dahlia, Mulholland Falls), Gangster Squad doesn’t.

Coming out of the movie, I was struck by just how lucky the filmmakers were able to assemble the incredibly talented cast they did. Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte, Michael Peña, and a horribly miscast Emma Stone give their all to the material that is never able to rise above the tropes and conventions of every film noir picture that precedes it. Even Sean Penn channels his best inner villian as Mickey Cohen, the cruel New York gangster who’s come to take over LA. 

Taking a page out of the “Tarantino Revisionist History Book”, Gangster Squad tells the story of how an undercover crime squad of misfit police officers is able to bring down Cohen and his organization. Of course, this is not what actually happened but for the duration of the film “Based on a True Story” holds its fair weight. In reality, Cohen – like Al Capone – was arrested for tax evasion.

The biggest problem with the film is that it’s never able to figure out whether it wants to pay homage to film noirs or actually be one. The dialogue and characters, for one, are straight out of black and white films. We have the tough cop with a baby on the way (Sergeant John O’Mara, played by Josh Brolin), the sleazy cop brought to action by the death of an innocent shoe-shiner (Sergeant Jerry Wooters, played by Ryan Gosling), the gun-slinger hero cop (Detective Max Kennard, played by Robert Patrick), and a femme fatale that’s playing both sides (Grace Farraday, played by Emma Stone).

On the other side, Ruben Fleisher’s camera never accepts the world written on the page, but tries to infuse a 21st century light in every camera swing, dolly, and pan. You can point to the heavy-handed dialogue, the naivety, the slick feel of the film, and even the violence as its downfall, but it’s the film’s schizophrenic tone that’s the real barrier between a good time and a mediocre one.

A talented up and coming director who’s helmed some worthy material (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less), Fleisher is never able to make a positive mark here. Every other element of the film would have worked if Fleisher had a stronger grasp of the tone of the film. In fact, the moments that really worked in Gangster Squad were the ones when he wasn’t trying to perform a balancing act. He was just being original with the material. 

Gangster Squad is a fun, action-packed and violent time-killer. But if you’re looking for something with a little more depth (and far better uses of incredible actors), check out L.A. Confidential

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