When I told a friend I was heading to a screening of Gangster Squad last night, he apologized and wished me the best of luck. His concern was understandable given the critical consensus, and while I had planned on avoiding any kind of reviews prior to viewing, I had a good time with my expectations moderated. Faint praise, I know, but the bottom line is you can afford to give this one a pass, especially amidst Oscar season. The movie does have a few fun moments though, and it is worth a casual viewing on TV or Netflix (if it ever gets there).
The poster, like the rest of the movie, is passable.
I was an almost embarrassingly huge fan of Zombieland, director Ruben Fleischer's main claim to fame, but he was a poor choice here. While he has a gift for portraying both violence and comedy, he also has a very modern and lighthearted style that is ill-suited for a more serious period piece. The film feels like several different movies at different times, and never really forms a consistent identity. The best thing I can say about Gangster Squad is that it does not try to be L.A. Confidential, or anything else by James Elroy. That off-the-mark comparison is inevitable though, given the film's setting and subject matter.
Another reason I wanted to see the movie was the cast. Sean Penn gives a passionate performance, but that is also a mixed blessing. He portrays Mickey Cohen with such menacing intensity that it has a larger-than-life quality to it. Like Fleischer's direction, it flirts with full-on parody, but doesn't quite get there. A script with Disney-villain characterization doesn't help matters. Cohen unceremoniously kills off his subordinates, periodically explodes with rage, and makes a bunch of speeches that only serve to emphasize how despicable he is.
Josh Brolin gives a solid performance for a boring lead character: Sergeant John O'Mara. You've seen this soldier-turned-cop a hundred times before, and his iteration isn't written to be that likable. People repeatedly call him an honest cop and say he's got a good heart, but I think his dismal self-assessment as a retired soldier who doesn't know how to do anything but fight is far more accurate. He's almost as brutal as Cohen, and even more bullheaded.
Ryan Gosling's character, Jerry Wooters, is more likable and the other characters assess him far more accurately. One of the best lines in the movie is, "He's got a smart mouth but he's dumb where it counts." Emma Stone is wasted on a script that delegates her as mere eye-candy, though she does look stunning and her wardrobe will make you weep for what has become of women's fashion. Stone and Gosling comprise the star-crossed lovers of the film, though they don't really seem to sizzle in this movie, which is crazy because they were supposed to be stupid-good together in Crazy Stupid Love.
While the rest of the titular Gangster Squad is likable, nobody else in the supporting cast really gives a stand out performance. Again, I think a bad script is to blame. For every good line, there are at least five lazy cliches and trite observations. For every fresh scene, there are three you have seen before.
It seems like the stars just aren't right for Gangster Squad. It had a rough road to the silver screen too. After the Aurora massacre happened, Warner Bros. pulled the trailers and pushed back the premiere to re-shoot a gunfight that was originally supposed to occur in a movie theater. It was a compassionate gesture that will go completely unrecognized in the wake of Sandy Hook, with Washington and every media outlet imaginable blaming these atrocities on video games and Hollywood instead of a culture that systematically ignores mental illness and viciously preserves easy access to assault rifles. But that's an issue for another post.