Mobster mash – Gangster Squad review

Gangster Squad – Starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, and Sean Penn. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

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Fledgling director Ruben Fleischer must have thought he was living in a dream on the first day of shooting Gangster Squad, like an Ohio girl with big eyes and bigger dreams stepping off the bus in Hollywoodland. With one hit (Zombieland) and one flop (30 Minutes or Less) to his name, he nonetheless secured stars Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, and a whole host of talented ringers to play dress-ups in his 1940’s mobster movie. Then Gosling revealed the regrettably nasal, Nanny-like timbre of his character’s voice that he’d probably been methodically developing over the past few months. Penn started imitating Big Boy Caprice, only with less nuance, in his depiction of infamous criminal Mickey Cohen. And Nolte’s guttural wheezes were discovered not to be his final death rattle but rather an attempt at conveying screenwriter Will Beall’s overcooked dialogue. The final product elicits little more than a shrug. Made it, ma. Top of the world…

Fleischer is in way over his head here, and not just because of the questionable choices of his esteemed cast (for all we know, he could have nudged them in those directions, though Penn and Nolte seem like the kind of cats who’ll do whatever they want, directors be damned). Gangster Squad strives to be a pulpy throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood despite being filmed on shoddy digital; just one of many incongruous stylistic decisions that reveal its underlying identity crisis. It is sorely lacking a frenetic, cartoonish visual style that would make Beall’s screenplay even remotely palatable, yet brimming with grotesque spurts of violence that keep us from accepting that these events take place in any kind of believable reality.

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The picture is “inspired” by Paul Lieberman’s true Tales from the Gangster Squad, which tells of a secret LAPD unit intent on bringing down wiseguy Mickey Cohen. The fittingly square-jawed Brolin plays idealistic war vet Sgt. John O’Mara, tasked by Chief Bill Parker (Nolte) with putting together a ragtag troupe of clean cops to undercut Cohen’s stratospheric rise in the City of Angels. Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, and Robert Patrick make up the team; four fine actors who would be better served playing off one another in a wittier flick. Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling) turns down O’Mara’s invite at first, happy adjusting to this corrupt new world instead. When he falls for Cohen’s moll, “etiquette tutor” Grace Faraday (Stone), Wooters suddenly finds a reason to end the goon’s vile reign. Cue the montage!

But a montage is all we really get of the squad’s gangster-beating antics. When Ribisi’s nervous wire-tapper starts questioning O’Mara as to what the difference is between them and the bad guys, we’ve barely seen them cause any kind of a ruckus . Likewise, Wooter’s whip-fast bedding of Grace, which feels more like an act of dutiful obligation than genuine romance (Gosling and Stone managed more fireworks in Crazy, Stupid, Love). That has to do with Beall’s inability to write a scene that doesn’t solely rely on tired clichés. There’s a difference between paying homage and cribbing lazily; Gangster Squad hits all the notes of earlier classics because, well, that’s what it’s meant to do, isn’t it? Quentin Tarantino knows how to hit that sweet spot. The most imaginative this gets is a climactic shoot-out on a staircase, which seeks solely to remind us of The Untouchables. Wow, what a deep cut. Nice pull. How long did it take to think of that one?  

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With all that gore, a pun-reliant sense of humour, and frequent, grave, ultra-right-wing monologues about what it means to wear a badge, and why a man might need to defy the law to uphold it, you’d think this were an adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel (or, perhaps a hastily cobbled together tribute to his work based entirely on misinformed Amazon user reviews). At least Miller justifies his work’s more distasteful traits with storytelling finesse and breathtaking imagery. Gangster Squad has no such treats. During the feature, a copy of crime mag True Detective is brandished about, a likely nod to Fleischer and Beall’s five-cent aspirations. Gangster Squad is never fun or surprising enough to warrant comparison with the rollicking rides promised on the front page of those serials. Fleischer once showed off real imagination and inventiveness behind the camera on Zombieland. His latest is a step backwards; even more lifeless than the slow-walking beasties that once tormented Jesse Eisenberg. Watch Bugsy Malone instead. At least the voices of the screeching children in that pic are more soothing than the voices in this.

2/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Gangster Squad arrives in Australian cinemas January 10, 2013.

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