Gangster Squad is either a hyperviolent parody of all the worst excesses of gangland movies, or it’s a painfully awkward schlockfest overindulging in all the worst excesses of gangland movies. The tough part is, I really cannot tell which it is. Did screenwriter Will Beall and director Ruben Fleischer actually think this mass of clichés and gunfire would work? or is the point that it doesn’t work and they’re making fun of movies that try to serve up tepid crap to undiscerning audiences that are satisfied with stylized gore in place of a good story.
We start out with an overserious monologue by overserious LAPD detective John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) about his return to post-war Los Angeles to find it in the closing grip of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a boxer turned crime boss who came up from a poor Jewish neighborhood in New York, through Chicago, and out to the burgeoning west coast. Then, a pair of gore-soaked scenes to set the tone both of Cohen’s ruthlessness and of O’Hara’s mettle. At this point I’m saying, “this is awful.”
We meet borderline-corrupt detective Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who hangs out in the same nightclub as Cohen. We learn that he’s close with the owner, a known criminal associate of Cohen’s. And we watch him pick up Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), one of Cohen’s molls, in a scene with all the tone of a Cagney film but none of the emotion. At this point I’m saying, “this is ridiculous.”
The police chief (Nick Nolte) picks out O’Mara to lead an off-the-books squad of detectives to go to literal war against Cohen, knowing that O’Mara is experienced in — of course — guerrilla warfare behind Nazi lines. O’Mara’s pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), isn’t happy about it, but helps him pick out and recruit Wooters, along with the egghead (Giovanni Ribisi), the cowboy (Robert Patrick), the black guy (Anthony Mackie), and the hispanic guy (Michael Peña). At this point I’m saying, “what the hell is this, anyway?”
There are some spectacular action sequences — a tight chase scene and a climactic gunfight that seems to quote The Matrix come to mind — but whenever people start talking the movie swings from awful to ridiculous and back. Subtlety seems a foreign concept to Beall; in case you didn’t remember that Brolin’s character is the Good Irish Cop, his wife has a faint accent and is named Connie O’Mara. Stone’s character exists only to love and redeem Gosling’s — she really has no back story to speak of, and gives no indication why she should feel anything for him or his silly falsetto — and she is named Grace. It wouldn’t be fair, though, that the movie contains only archetypes instead of any actual female characters; it doesn’t contain any actual male characters either.
Which leads me to draw this conclusion: Gangster Squad is actually a botched attempt at a gritty reboot of Dick Tracy. It’s a garish, two-dimensional cartoon, and Penn’s makeup even makes him a dead ringer for Al Pacino’s turn as Big Boy. In this light, I actually have to commend Beall for not using Tracy’s two-way wrist radio, which would have ruined pretty much every major plot point in the film. On the other hand, it seems exactly the sort of thing Ribisi’s character might cook up.
And yes, I know the movie was heavily recut in the wake of the Aurora shootings; that can’t be an excuse. It was awful and ridiculous from the opening scene, long before the excised material exerted its influence on the storyline. No, this is just plain bad. Or it’s a really, really dry comedy. Like I said, I can’t tell for sure.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.