Boasting a superstar cast featuring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Nick Nolte, Gangster Squad eventually hit our screens on Friday following lengthy delays caused by a questionable scene which bared resemblence to the Aurora shooting in the US this past July. Directed by relative newcomer Rueben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes Or Less), Gangster Squad finds its setting in the late 1940's LA following the conclusion of the war. Mob boss Mickey Cohen (Penn) rules the city and his enterprise shows no sign of slowing down, due mostly to the fact that the police force have been bought onto Cohen's side. When police chief Bill Parker (Nolte) witnesses the vigilante style of lone ranger John O Mara (Brolin), he assigns the Sergeant the task of recruiting a secret police unit to sabotage Cohen, forming the eponymous 'gangster squad'.
While Gangster Squad claims itself to be ''based on true events'', it becomes evident pretty quickly that these events are more fantasy than fact as we are introduced to Mickey Cohen executing a rival gang member in bizarre fashion. As the victim is ripped in half and feasted upon by wolves no less, it's clear from this point onwards that there will not be much deep thought involved over the course of the 113 minutes running time, and the remainder of the film is consistent with it's opening, providing comically exaggerated action sequences that may look impressive but threaten to downgrade Gangster Squad to the spoof genre rather than a film worth taking seriously.
And that is the main problem Gangster Squad faces throughout- it really cannot decide whether it wants to take a sincere look at the 1940's criminal underworld or mock the very genre it's attempting to portray. More often than not with it's over the top action scenes, overwrought dialogue and offbeat humour, Gangster Squad feels like an unconcious parody of itself and this messy, half hearted cariciture of crime drama fails to engage the viewer as perhaps it would have if the director had decided which direction he wanted to take the film in and stuck to it rather than the half-serious, half-satire outcome.
The most impressive thing about Gangster Squad is obvious: the production of it's setting in 1940's LA is terrific, and in terms of costume design, visual effects, cinematography, soundtrack and editing, Gangster Squad is an absolute hit on every level. The wonderfully conveyed style of the era is a saving grace for the film and even in it's most cringeworthy moments, the set has to be admired.
However, it must be said that cringeworthy moments are provided in force throughout, as several cast members take a quick paycheck in return for lame, lazy performances. Guilty parties include Nick Nolte with a preposterous, stereotypical police chief character with an impossibly overdone gravel voice. The man sounds like he's been eating rocks. Sean Penn has been acclaimed for his performance by some, but I must admit I found it laughable at times. While he suceeds in showcasing the volatile nature of Cohen as his crimnal enterprise nears its end, a poor attempt at a gangster accent and a terrible make up job don't help, rendering Penn hard to take seriously throughout. Brolin is run of the mill as the hero cop protagonist of the story, while several members of his aforementioned squad are criminally underused, particularly the talented Anthony Mackie and the eternally underrated Giovanni Ribisi who are wasted in their respective roles.
As a huge fan of Ryan Gosling, I was genuinely surprised at his decision to take such an undemanding, cash in hand role as the womanizing Jerry Wooters. I suppose Gosling feels that his usual penchant for challenging work (Blue Valentine, Half Nelson) has bought him at least one quick payday and that's all this is for the man of the moment- despite the effortless cool and snappy one liners, Gosling is obviously not particularly committed to the project and it seems more like a fashion show than a film for the most part for him. And as for his damsel in distress girlriend character played by Emma Stone... Well, there's not much to say other than she looks great.
In conclusion, Gangster Squad is demeaned by the fact that it doesn't know whether it wants to be farfetched action shoot 'em up or a gangster period drama. The often extravagent, overdone result is not helped by a lacklustre cast and if not for the stylish design of its set, Gangster Squad would be reduced to a laughably weak production. The best thing I can say about Gangster Squad is that it is decent action flick for cinema-goers, but be ready to turn your brain off.