Director Ruben Fleischer, whose first two feature films were predominantly comedic (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less), steps into new territory with 'Gangster Squad'- a stylish, if somewhat frivolous interpretation of the rise and fall of organised crime in 40s and 50s Los Angeles.
In maniacally hammy form, Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen- the man who believes running LA, and possibly the world, is his destiny. He's an ex-boxer and ruthless killer. Feared even by the people who work for him- who are likely to be painfully despatched at even the most unavoidable mistake- he owns the police, the politicians, the casinos, the night clubs, just about everything and everyone in LA.
Itís time somebody did something about it, damn it!
That somebody turns out to be Chief Bill Parker, played by Nick Nolte- who incidentally has a voice that could grate gravel (seriously Nick, lay off the Cubans and Bourbon, you made my ears bleed!) Actually he just palms the job off on to hero cop Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) who looks like he could be his son but isn't.
With his Rushmore jaw and equally chiselled code of morality, O'Mara is definitely the man for the job. Aided by his wife (behind every great man etc.) he assembles a ragtag team of misfits who are united by one thing, they wonít be bought and they wonít let criminals run the city. Okay, two things. Together they will be known as
The Untouchables The Gangster Squad.
The recruits are knifeman (Anthony Mackie), aging gunslinger (Robert Patrick), the brains (Giobanni Ribisi), and the young buck (Michael Pena). Oh and not to forget reluctant second in command Sgt. Jerry Wooters, played by Ryan Gosling . Gosling slots neatly into Noir archetype of the cynic with a heart of gold and his love interest and the filmís obligatory femme fatale is played by Emma Stone . The two have worked together successfully before in the sharply-written rom-com ĎCrazy, Stupid, Loveí, so pairing them up again is a pretty sure thing.
One suspects that Fleischerís only direction for Gosling was Ďlook coolí, because thatís pretty much all he does. Also, for some reason, the ĎDriveí actor seems to be pitching his voice an octave higher for this role, possibly trying to emphasise the slick, screwball-esque dialogue between him and Stone. Instead he just ends up sounding like a peeved eunuch (I guess eunuchs have every right to be peeved). Itís not a classic performance from him but then again this isnít the kind of film where actors are really given the chance to shine. Itís difficult to get an Oscar nod when youíre pouring concentrated acid on a manís genitals.
Without wanting to spoil anything, anyone who has seen more than a few films will know from the start who in the team is expendable before they are expended of- itís probably going to be the least photogenic ones. You can judge for yourself who the least photogenic ones are. Maybe you think Gosling and Brolin are plug uggos!
I alluded earlier to a certain similarity between 'Gangster Squad' and a certain classic Brian De Palma film and thatís because said similarity hits you in the face like Al Caponeís baseball bat. Like Capone, Mickey Cohen rules through a combination of fear, bribery and a popularity with the press that keeps the public on his side. Like Elliot Ness, OíMara is the only beacon of light in a corrupt city but is flawed in that he overlooks the inevitable collateral damage when taking on a man as powerful as Cohen. Fleischer is no Brian De Palma though and nowhere in 'Gangster Squad' is there anything that comes anywhere near to matching the majesty of the Eisenstein-referencing shootout in Grand Central Station from 'The Untouchables'. There are some exciting set-pieces though. The best, a three-pronged prison cell escape that is edited with aplomb and includes the standout gag of the film.
Visually, Gangster Squad owes something to the screen adaptation of Frank Millerís 'Sin City' and the work of Zack Snyder- like Snyder, Fleisher has a proclivity for slow-mo. That might be a good think for you and it might not. 'The Untouchables' itself is a somewhat stylised film but 'Gangster Squad' makes it look grittier than Ken Loachís kitchen sink.
Also reminiscent of 'Sin City' is the regularly expressions of extreme violence. It sets the bar high early on with an execution that will turn your stomach (think Ancient Chinese punishment but with cars instead of horses). Iím all for a good bit of gore but there comes a point where it drifts into vulgar absurdity if death and pain are dealt out with more flippancy than a packet of polos.
The violence regularly punctuates what is undeniably a polished representation of 1940ís LA. 'Gangster Squad' is certainly pretty and also pretty entertaining while itís zipping along with tommy gun ferocity. When it does slow down for melodrama is when it falls down. The tension between OíMara and his wife over his decision to take on Cohen is dull and unconvincing and itís unlikely you will shed a tear at any point throughout the film- unless of course itís because Nick Nolte has perforated your eardrum.