Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gangster Squad (2013) - Movie Review

Gangsters shoot about as well as Stormtroopers.

Here's an example of when a movie 'based off true events' misses the mark.  In Gangster Squad we follow a task force created to stop gangster Mickey Cohen's criminal organization.

Set back in the late 1940's, Cohen (Sean Penn) was a ruthless gangster that the LAPD was in danger of losing the city to.  It didn't help that many local police forces were on his payroll, and just as much a part of the problem as the gangsters were. Chief Bill Parker (a super gravelly Nick Nolte), puts John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) in charge of putting together a small, 'off the books' task force to stop Cohen.  O'Mara is an honest, but tough minded cop, and is told that he doesn't simply want Cohen killed, but he wants his organization destroyed to the point where any other gangster would be scared off from trying to swoop in after Cohen is gone.

Normally a movie like Gangster Squad is right up my alley.  It's slick looking, has a good cast, and I generally love stories about gangsters, especially when based off real people.  However, the whole time while I'm watching I can't quite figure out why it wasn't clicking for me.  After a bloody opening, I thought it was going to be the kind of violent crime drama that I enjoy, but it all felt very tame somehow.  Maybe because when I compare it to something like Django Unchained the violence didn't have the same kind of impact to it.

The story itself is also very thin and there's not a lot of depth to any of the characters.  They try to show that some of the squad members are conflicted over the level of violence they are using to stop the bad guys, and is there really any difference between the police and the gangsters, but they don't really go into it too much.  Will Beall's script was based off a book Tales from the Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman, and neither he or the book have an entry on Wikipedia, so that ought to tell you something about how popular or critically acclaimed that book is.  If you're gonna base your 'based on true events' movie off a book, maybe you should go with one people have heard of.  I'm a little nervous now that Beall is attached to both the upcoming Justice League movie and the next Lethal Weapon.  I hope this isn't a sign of things to come.

There's also a love story between squad member Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and Cohen's girlfriend Grace (Emma Stone). As much as I like Gosling and Stone, I felt they were both miscast here.  Stone seemed too young and innocent to play the kind of sexy the role needed, not that there was much to the role in the first place.  Gosling's voice had a weird affectation to it where it he sounded like he was sucking on helium in between takes, and his voice wasn't consistent through the film.  I think the biggest missed opportunity between these two was that the great chemistry they demonstrated in Crazy, Stupid, Love was all but gone here.

A movie is only as good as its bad guy, but Sean Penn's Cohen wasn't very effective.  It didn't help that they put him in ridiculous looking makeup and spoke with a overdone accent that made him feel more like a Dick Tracy villain than a real person.  It also doesn't help the realism that even with the makeup, Penn doesn't look anything like Mickey Cohen.

Mickey Cohen, 1949.  The resemblance
 to Sean Penn is uncanny, huh?
Looking at that picture, you'd think that someone like Joe Pesci or even Bob Hoskins would be a better fit.

Gangster Squad is another movie where the bad guys with automatic weapons can't hit shit, but the good guys are all crack shots.  It's like they all went to the Stormtrooper school of marksmanship.  This allows a group of just five people to take on and defeat a much larger force of gangsters.  It's not like they employed any kind of tactics to give them the upper hand either.  The bad guys even make it easy on them by refusing to take any kind of cover when being shot at or just run right up to them as they're being fired upon.

Between the over-the-top performance of Sean Penn and the silliness of his henchmen, I couldn't figure out if this was meant to be a serious drama, or if they were going for more of a humorous angle.  Confusing this further was that this was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who was on more of a comedic track with his previous films, Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less.  He's still one of my favorite up-and-coming directors, but he probably wasn't the best choice to direct if the intent was to make as serious crime drama.  I do think he did a good job with the look of the film, which was it's strength.

Gangster Squad is an example of a movie that's all style and no substance.  It's normally the type of film I eat up, but I didn't find it all that creative or original.  It wastes a talented cast with a very pedestrian story that can nobody can rise above.  It's ultimately pretty forgettable, but it's not a bad rental when you want to kill two hours.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars


  1. Good review Erik. While it looks great, it suffers from poor writing and storytelling. Acting was alright and all, but acting can only do so much for the final-product.

    1. Thanks, Dan. It's a unfortunate example of a movie looking great on paper, but it not even being equal to the sum of its parts.