Set in the era after World War II, “Gangster Squad,” directed by Ruben Fleischer, tells a black-and-white story of good versus evil, albeit not a very entertaining one.
The “gangster squad” refers to six policemen of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), working in an undercover mission to take down one of the largest, local gangster networks, led by the infamous Mickey Cohen. The crew is led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling).
Because the group is surreptitious and “off the records,” it can get away with extralegal operations, including the unwarranted tapping of phone lines and the random shooting of men suspected to be involved in Cohen’s cohort.
“Gangster Squad” assimilates history, violence and campiness into a single package, so although one may think that it deserves its own niche in the cinema, it just ends up feeling like a derivative of other movies that seek the same blend of drastically different parts. “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds,” both directed by Quentin Tarantino, incorporate this same blend of campiness, history and incredible violence, but do a far better job of it. “Gangster Squad” feels like a sloppy attempt to mirror Tarantino’s unexpected style, and fails miserably in the process.
Aside from a twist towards the end of the movie (that most should see coming), the plot is very linear. Instead of being wrapped up in the suspense of whether or not the heroes will take down Cohen’s gang, the audience waits for the moment when Cohen is finally shackled and brought in for his mug shot. The blood and gore is meant to be the movie’s fallback as the prime entertainment value, but is lackluster in comparison to the edginess of that of other movies.
Neither does Brolin’s performance help pick up the damaged plot. His perpetual half-squint and pursed lips start to reach Popeye-esque heights by the final scene. From finding his newborn child to shooting down rows of Cohen’s men, it seems that Brolin’s stolid expression changes very little and offers no insight into the character’s often irrational motivations and actions.
Gosling offers a somewhat better performance, yet something about his affected voice for this role seemed uncomfortable. At times it felt as if he were intentionally whispering for no apparent reason. Unlike Brolin, though, his motivation for participating in the squad are slightly more obvious: he wants to protect the “damsel in distress,” Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who is Cohen’s “etiquette teacher.”
Stone’s performance is fine for the short amount of screen time she inhabits. Her character is underwritten to the point of wondering why exactly she’s even in the movie. She could have easily been taken out of the movie without the plot being affected very much. The lack of chemistry between Stone and Gosling brings into question Gosling’s motives for continuing to remain in the squad by about halfway through the movie.
The audience is meant to believe that both Brolin and Gosling only continue to fight Cohen’s significantly better fortified and prepared gang because “the War has taught them how to fight and not how to live.” One wonders why they couldn’t have been fighting against something less daunting. The director and writers of “Gangster Squad” fail to enlighten the audience with any semblance of understanding or empathy for the characters who continuously fight to take down Cohen’s gang, which makes the movie less entertaining and more confusing.
“Gangster Squad” helplessly traps itself in a limbo in which it strives to reach absurdist means through the use of incredible blood and gore, but instead comes off as unbelievable, uninteresting, and confusing. Perhaps Fleischer should take some notes from Tarantino’s past successes and take another stab at history.