Film review: Gangster Squad

This star-studded gangster film misses its mark

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Helmed by the promising up-and-coming director Ruber Fleicher and featuring an all-star cast, including Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, Gangster Squad looked to be one of the most promising movies of the year. Yet instead of being the impressive gangster film it could have been, it turned out to be an inconsequential and generally awful movie.

Gangster Squad is about a team of Los Angeles Police Department detectives going off the books to bring down a local gangster, who has started to control too much of the city. The gangster in question is Mickey Cohen (Penn), and it’s up to the team led by John O’Mara (Brolin) to end his criminal shenanigans. This all takes place in a stylized 1949, because that’s when many of the great gangster movies take place and because it’s technically based on a true story, even though the majority of the film’s events are fictionalized.

The titular gangster squad is comprised of a group of incredibly uninteresting people. They are all very bland and one-dimensional, and nothing is really done to make the audience care about them. Brolin is the leader and also narrates the picture; Gosling is the ladies’ man; Anthony Mackie hates heroin dealers; Giovanni Ribisi is the “tech guy,” who also happens to have a family; Robert Patrick can shoot guns really well; Michael Peña is inexperienced but shows potential. Those single line descriptions are more in-depth than what audiences get in the movie. 

Of course, the filmmakers have an excuse for why the production didn’t pan out: it was significantly edited and re-shot after the tragic Aurora shooting spree. One of the climaxes of the film involved people bursting through a movie screen and shooting up a theatre full of people. Parts of the film were trimmed, re-shot or excised altogether in order not to offend anyone. It’s possible that it was a good movie at one point, but the final product does not attest to that. Gangster Squad was also pushed back from its September release date to January, which is a month notorious for being a dumping ground for bad movies.

Even if it had better characters, Gangster Squad would still have had most of the same action beats, which are horrible, and dialogue that sounds like it was written by a 12-year-old whose only exposure to gangster movies was watching The Untouchables once on television. The action has more unnecessary slow motion than a Zack Snyder movie, and consists of thugs firing their Tommy guns at people they never have a chance to hit because the main characters have to live until the end.

The whole experience doesn’t feel like a gangster movie. It was noticeably shot on digital, with little post-production work to make it feel more authentic to the film’s time period. It’s not gritty enough, and while this might have been a stylistic choice, it doesn’t work for this genre. Penn also plays his role like a cartoon villain out of a completely different film, while everyone else shows about as much interest in the picture as most people will in watching this movie. Wait to see Gangster Squad until it hits home video, and at that point only break it out if you’re suffering from insomnia.