Starlets. Gangsters. Ryan Gosling wearing a fedora and pinstripes. Seems like a recipe for success—but Gangster Squad isn’t as delicious as it looks. The film is undercooked in some ways and overdone in others, although it doesn’t start out that way.
Gangster Squad opens auspiciously with a shot of the old “Hollywoodland” sign and all the glamour and intrigue that symbol implies, and one of its central characters, Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), initially presents as a heroic and well-drawn figure.
O’Mara’s mission is to rid Los Angeles of the brutal gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn)—who, according to O’Mara, sullied the City of Angels while O’Mara was doing his part in the recently-ended war. O’Mara is a dedicated crime-fighter similar to Boardwalk Empire’s Nelson Van Alden, minus all the uptight oddness. He has a pregnant wife with whom he shares a loving yet imperfect relationship, and it’s this insight into the dynamics of his personal life that makes him the most developed character in the film—which, unfortunately, isn’t saying much. Brolin’s physical appearance is spot-on for a straitlaced G-Man type, and his portrayal of O’Mara is solid despite a hopelessly flawed script.
The script is what sinks Gangster Squad. Even a cast that includes Nick Nolte, Michael Peña and the gifted Giovanni Ribisi can’t salvage the shallow character development and dull, simplistic plot. The film might have rivaled the best of crime noir, but instead of following the lead of LA Confidential, it quickly deteriorates into a weak copy of Dick Tracy.
Gangster Squad could have been compelling, but it simply isn’t. The story grows increasingly less interesting and more tedious as the film moves along. There are too many tiresome shootouts and brawls, Mickey Cohen is written as nothing but a caricature who screams over-the-top lines like “Los Angeles is my destiny!” and the rest of the dialogue is mostly fluff—cutesy fast-talking that is often mumbled and difficult to understand. There are, however, a few witty lines, including Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)’s sexually-fueled quip “I haven’t been sophisticated in weeks” when he first catches a glimpse of Mickey Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday(Emma Stone).
Stone does an excellent job of portraying a sultry moll with the requisite red lipstick and Jessica Rabbit strut. But like the rest of the powerhouse cast, she is not given quality material to showcase her talent. Grace’s relationship with Jerry could have sizzled—but it has so little substance that all emotion, sensuality, and meaning are drained. The Gosling-Stone sparks that flew in Crazy, Stupid, Love are extinguished in Gangster Squad by no fault of the actors but because they are deprived of an engaging storyline.
The most successful aspect of the film is its depiction of the late-‘40s setting, as the soundtrack and cinematography effectively recreate both the sparkle and darkness of that era. Gangster Squad has an enticing appearance, but there isn’t much beneath the sheen.
The DVD extras include commentary with the director, deleted scenes, and a short feature, “Tough Guys with Style”’ in which Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, and Emma Stone discuss the iconic look of the ‘40s.