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Film Review | Failures shoot ‘Gangster Squad’ in the foot

Poor script and character development overshadow cast

Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 00:01

The best way to describe director Ruben Fleischer’s new film, “Gangster Squad”? Ridiculously violent. We’re not talking an occasional scene with gunfire or fist fighting. We’re talking 110 minutes of gruesome, graphic — and often gratuitous — slow−motion violence. If value of a film were directly correlated to the amount of on−screen violence, “Gangster Squad” would succeed with flying colors. It’s a shame that this isn’t the case.

The storyline, which is loosely based on actual events, follows a crew of insubordinate Los Angeles cops in their efforts to bring down lead mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). LA Police Chief Parker, played by that gruffest of actors, Nick Nolte, orders Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to throw together a squad of skilled and, more importantly, willing officers who can take down Cohen before he gains complete control over the city. O’Mara’s right−hand man in the crew is fellow sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). Less well−known but still highly accomplished actors including Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), Michael Pena (Crash), and Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan) form the rest of this team of vigilantes.

Fleischer chooses to accentuate Cohen’s psychotic tendencies, so the audience must bear witness to numerous twisted deaths of Cohen’s own henchmen. Including these scenes as a complement to the already abundant gunplay scenes only notches up the already stomach−churning gore factor. Fleischer’s crass homage to Quentin Tarantino, who often showcases perverse violence, fails because “Gangster Squad” lacks the corresponding dry humor that accompanies Tarantino’s best work.

The unmediated violence momentarily distracts, instead, from poor writing and minimal character development. Each of the gunmen receives an extremely generalized label upon introduction, and the actors are rigidly circumscribed within the static confines of these categories. Emma Stone plays Mickey’s trophy girl and Jerry’s love interest Grace Faraday, but Stone is never able to move beyond the “damsel in distress” trope due to her little time on screen and badly written dialogue. Pena’s character, portrayed by Latino actor Navidad Ramirez, receives stereotypical outsider status, portrayed as lucky just to be incorporated into the group, despite his ethnicity. Watching Pena play such an underdeveloped character is disappointing after he received such strong reviews for his role in last year’s “End of Watch” (2012).

Genre films in this realm typically highlight the group’s transition from naive amateurs to knowing professionals who eventually learn how to ‘play the game’. The crew of six in “Gangster Squad” never really progresses from disorganized to prepared, though, and Gosling’s character even points this out during the film. From the outset, the squad is either lucky or unlucky during their nightly missions to spoil Cohen’s business transactions, and it remains that way right up to the credits.

While a couple of scenes are distinguished, they in no way mitigate the mess that is “Gangster Squad.” Penn, at times, channels effectively the brutality and maliciousness of kingpin Mickey Cohen, but his portrayal more often than not comes across as cartoonish. Brolin’s character, O’Mara, the putative protagonist of the film, is entirely forgettable and the audience forges a greater connection with O’Mara’s wife (Mireille Enos) than with the sergeant himself. Gosling is the only one of the leading males who translates as a somewhat realistic character and his ability to inject comic relief salvages several scenes. Gosling’s on−screen relationship with Stone, however, receives so little attention that the audience never understands why they are together: in the film they sleep together one night, and they are instantly soul mates.

The end of “Gangster Squad” is merely an attempt by Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall to tie a neat bow around an empty box. The final scene jacks up the corniness, and for a film that saturates the narrative with unremitting violence up to this point, such a denouement seems out of place by miles. “Gangster Squad” fails both as an attempt at a successful period piece and as a “teamwork challenge” film such as the “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) films or “The Avengers” (2012). It might have been an honest failure if it hadn’t sold out long before a quality cast went before the cameras.

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