An unconvincing facsimile of a crime drama, Gangster Squad, in the end, is merely a podunk action movie in a nice suit.
Gangster Squad concerns a group of cops led by John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) who are forced to confront organized crime kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), vigilante-style, on account of their police department’s corruption. The rag-tag group has got everything a rag-tag group needs: the aforementioned leader guy, handsome guy (Ryan Gosling), brainy guy (Giovanni Ribisi), old guy (Robert Patrick), black guy (Anthony Mackie), and Latino guy (Michael Peña). Oh, also there’s sexy girl in slinky dresses (Emma Stone), and grizzled police boss guy (Nick Nolte).
That Gangster Squad is formulaic isn’t really the problem, because as an implausible action movie it’s basically fine: the car chases work, the fist fights work, the gun fights have bullets in them. The problem is that Gangster Squad wants to be L.A. Confidential but it’s really just The Expendables without the sense of irony. There’s a shift in the story in which we’re meant to accept that our rag-tag group is executing a masterful plan to bring down the ruthless Mickey Cohen, except their “plan” is so ad hoc and explosively random that we can’t tell if director Rubin Fleischer (Zombieland) is trying to be funny or not.
Another major problem is the nauseating degree of Hollywood self-mythologizing at work here. We’re not so much in 1940s Hollywood in this film as we’re in the alternate reality Hollywood that aspiring actors who drive faux-vintage motorcycles and hang out at dive bars in East Hollywood live in. Emma Stone’s femme-fatale is so boilerplate it feels like we’re in a Leslie Nielsen movie. When watching Gangster Squad one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that we’re not being transported to another time, we’re indulging the tedious, macho fantasies of the man-children in the movie itself. It’s gross.
Gangster Squad is a competent movie when it comes to its production. The costumes and sets meet a high standard of professionalism, as do the cinematography and the performances, the music, etc. It’s got craft, but it’s got no soul. Ultimately it’s hard to understand who this movie is for.
As a period piece it doesn’t function because the film doesn’t even pretend toward such an ambition. As a suspense movie it doesn’t function because there’s no actual mystery or political intrigue to anything. There aren’t any surprises or usurpations, just some bad guys and some good guys who are at odds.
Gangster Squad is a prosaic action movie masquerading as Chinatown. It attracted a talented cast because it afforded the actors the opportunity to delight in childish fantasies about being cool, tough dudes during a the second golden era of American movies. It’s not awful, but it’s completely unnecessary. Don’t rent it.