Gangster Squad Review


Welcome to the post-New Years cinematic dearth, when many people are looking for a convenient way to relieve stress, no doubt after having been subjected to WAY too much ‘family time.’ It is in this social climate that the therapeutic powers of Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad may be welcomed with open arms.

Featuring the considerable talents of Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn, Gangster Squad, in many ways, was already sure of its success before filming ever began. By that, I mean I’m almost certain that more attention was deliberately given to action sequences than to character development, and Fleischer knew that we would still go see the movie anyway. And indeed, there is something undeniably cathartic about watching Josh Brolin (who is apparently an absolute bear of a man) as Sgt. John O’Mara beat the ever-loving stupid out of various flavors of thug with his bare (bear) hands. Likewise, the sight of Ryan Gosling in a three piece suit holding a shotgun might make many people, including myself, weak at the knees, but I simultaneously can’t help but feel that there’s a kind of underlying hollowness to it all.

Set in a beautifully stylized depiction of 1940’s Los Angeles, Gangster Squad incorporates outstanding density and attention to detail to create a surprisingly immersive experience. Expertly paced, action sequences are nicely varied with character building, and the soundtrack was filled with all the 1940‘s splendor that you could ask for. You could’t help but smile as lovable, semi-crooked cop Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling) put the moves on Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Stone). Then, unfortunately, you frown again as their relationship drifts towards the arbitrary and what was supposed to be a powerful moment passes by, almost without emotionally registering.

Inconsistencies in plot can generally be overlooked, although some niggling doubts remain. For example, why is it established early on that Jack O’Mara (Brolin) is supposed to be an expert in guerrilla warfare while he consistently attempts foolhardy, not to mention suicidal, frontal assaults on formidably armed enemy hideouts? In reality, Wooters seems to be the real brains of the operation while everyone else is along for the ride.

Thematically unchallenging, the essential conflict revolves around the fight between good versus evil, with only vague stabs in the direction of more complex subjects, such as the ethics behind it all. An interesting rift between O’Mara and his wife is ripe for development, involving his professional duty versus his familial duty, but in the end nothing really comes of it.

Gangster Squad uses the plot device that I will henceforth refer to as “fellowship-of-the-ring syndrome,” the employment of which involves the assemblage of a team of various ‘specialists’ to help combat some otherwise unstoppable evil. This time around, that evil comes in the form of MIckey Cohen (Penn) and his rapidly expanding criminal empire. The problem often times with the use of fellowship-of-the-ring syndrome is that the introduction of so many central characters naturally means less thorough characterization for each. I got out a kick out of the inclusion of the blatantly token Latino character who quite literally is included into the ‘gangster squad’ because no one knows what else to do with him, as well as the only slightly less token black character, both of whom were presumably included merely to represent a nice spectrum of diversity. My real problem, strangely enough, was with the characterization of Cohen. I heard another critic refer to his character as more of a Batman villain rather than an actual person, and I wholeheartedly agree. Penn no doubt did the best he could with the material he was given, but I was nevertheless disappointed because he was forced to play a caricature rather than a character, and his talent was squandered, as fans of Milk, Carlito’s Way, or Dead Man Walking can attest.

In the end, Gangster Squad is a fast paced, visceral celebration of boyish, fantasy gangster-violence. Overall it works, considering what it’s actually trying to accomplish and I certainly enjoyed watching beautiful people fight to save what they loved amid a beautiful backdrop. Characterization leaves something to be desired, but the action compensates, as it should.

Director Ruben Fleischer won some good will with Zombieland (2009) and almost immediately lost it again with 30 Minutes or Less (2011). Fleischer probably has a long career in front of him and, come what may, I look forward to seeing more of his work. I say remain cautiously optimistic for the future.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Note: As you may or may not be aware, after the Aurora massacre, a scene in the film was cut depicting the ‘gangster squad’ shooting up a movie theater. The ethics behind this choice are interesting, and there’s really no right answer as to whether or not it should have remained. We’d love to hear your comments on the subject.

10 thoughts on “Gangster Squad Review

  1. Foogos January 22, 2013 / 10:57 pm

    Love the Lord of the Rings analogy.

    I appreciate the tip-of-the-cap to show respect to the families and victims of the Aurora shooting, and personally, I feel it was the right thing to do… but I also feel this kind of censorship, in general, opens up a can of worms, too. A lot of the violence in movies echoes what happens every day, so should all the countless gory scenes we’re bound to see on the big screen this year be edited out, too, or are we saying there is a set time frame (in this case, 6 months) and proximity (within the US) when art isn’t allowed to imitate life?

  2. wyeldconverse January 22, 2013 / 11:58 pm

    Love your blog! keeps me up to date on all things movies!

    Hey man im just started my first blog and am trying to get some traffic can you help? i plan on a daily dose of music with a kickass movie trailer!

  3. greercn January 23, 2013 / 12:50 am

    I liked it more than you did but it does lack character development. But isn’t that a modern need when this is a standard film noir of the late 1940s, with modern celebrities? But, then, I could probably happily watch Ryan Gosling reading the phone book and may be less discerning that you are!

  4. Albert Cantu January 23, 2013 / 3:35 am

    Haha I agree with you about Gosling! I’m sadly ignorant of late 1940’s noir, and while you may absolutely be right, to some extent I think that a good movie doesn’t need excuses made for it, ya know?

  5. timneath January 23, 2013 / 11:46 am

    Maybe exerted scene will re-appear when the dvd is released later this year, making the film more complete. Like you say it’s an issue that is hard to really answer, especially being released at the time of such a horrific tragedy.

  6. vaodiva January 23, 2013 / 4:46 pm

    Undoubtedly, if the theatre scene had been left in, half of American would’ve been up in arms, unable to discern between reality and escapism. Probably a good thing it was removed, if merely to avoid fodder for some of our objective media sources “/

  7. Drew January 24, 2013 / 1:42 am

    I think the stand-out performance in this movie was from the foley team! The sound effects were brutal, from the gunshots to the punches to the random bits of glass shattering here and there.

  8. coolyongelew January 24, 2013 / 4:10 pm

    I think as an art form, film makers have a responsibility to show true to life scenario’s. But… I think sometimes the pain is all too real for those who experienced that fatal shooting so it would be in bad taste. no one needs to be reminded of such an event, did the movie suffer from taking out the scene, NO. would it been a different movie, i doubt it, but for wat was shown it was a great film. Plus either way, America bites themselves everytime a school gets shot up and then wanna say its ok to still bare arms and get “arms” from opening a bank account, much less your local wal-mart

  9. Eric Paolini January 27, 2013 / 3:21 am

    I believe the rewrites because of Aurora were because of this movie’s abundance of violence. It’s video game esque. It isn’t an Oliver Stone movie where the violence leaves an emotional impact. It’s the type of violence some people claim to cause events like Aurora. But that’s a different topic of conversation. I think Fleischer and the studios wanted to distance themselves and their violent movie from Aurora as much as possible. Originally, I thought it was a mistake to cut out the scene entirely. Should have cut a new trailer. But I can see how the somewhat glorification of violence scared them.

    As far as the movie goes, I felt they ditched the noir aspect for straight up action. They took a cool topic and created a fairly generic film. I think that’s why it went away from noir and used Hans Zimmer like score at times (didn’t work at all for me). Disappointment for sure, but when the choices around this time are Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Statham this was enjoyable.

    Loved the review.

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