Gangster Squad review

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Review Michael Leader 10 Jan 2013 - 07:00

A starry cast has assembled for the period crime flick, Gangster Squad. Michael finds out whether the film's as good as its credits...

Gangster Squad. Bam! The title is like a punch to the face - a little bit unimaginative, a little lacking in poetry, but it gets its point across. This isn’t a musical, it’s not a spaghetti western, it’s certainly not a biographical drama. Nope, this is a gangster flick, and crime, criminals and crime-busters are the order of the day, as director Ruben Fleischer follows the boom-bust combo of Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less with this overcooked genre exercise.

Leading a fantastic ensemble cast is Josh Brolin, who stars as John O’Mara, one of LAPD’s finest who is tasked with forming a mob-toppling team of cops to wage war against LA crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). The ex-boxer turned mafia don has extorted his way to the top of the food chain, so O’Mara and his men must leave their badges behind and tackle the case head on.

While its basic conceit suggests a mix of both the idealistic heroism of The Untouchables and the seedy Californian setting of LA Confidential, Gangster Squad shoots straight from the hip, aiming for immediate, cheap thrills and endless action sequences. In a full pendulum swing from the clinical, meticulous ultra-realism of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Fleischer’s ‘based on true events’ caper is steeped in the hyper-real, high-contrast ‘Post-Snyder’ aesthetic, where colour-corrected hues, bone-crunching sound design and slow-mo fight scenes stand in for visual imagination.

It’s not like there’s much substance hiding behind the stylised sheen, anyway. The squad themselves are a fun bunch of archetypes: you have the stalwart sergeant (Brolin), a suave youth (Ryan Gosling), a technical whizz-kid (Giovanni Ribisi), a knife-wielding beat cop (Anthony Mackie), an old west-style gunman (Robert Patrick) and his Mexican sidekick (Michael Pena, here reduced after the heights of End Of Watch to playing a wafer-thin Hispanic character called Ramirez). However, there isn’t a real character in the whole bunch, just a collection of stock traits that boil down to race, age and favoured weapon. It’s a real waste of a good ensemble, especially Emma Stone’s sultry moll, whose job mainly consists of wearing knock-out dresses and gently smouldering in front of the camera.

That Mickey Cohen is eventually brought to justice thanks to the testimony of Stone’s character (or, if you believe ‘history’, actual police work) is something of a red herring, as Fleischer and writer Will Beall portray it as a simple case of shooting legions of henchmen and, finally, punching the crook right in the kisser. Such concerns - convincing storytelling, character development, thematic depth - are soon revealed to be secondary to montages of raids and shootouts. Sure, there are references throughout to the gangster squad’s blood-soaked mission, the loss of innocence that comes with it, and how their determination may or may not be influenced by the lingering effects of World War II, but these are token themes barely explored, often mentioned in one scene and forgotten in the next.

Likewise, Mickey Cohen’s ravings about Manifest Destiny and the passing of a new era of crime are merely fodder for Sean Penn, who turns in his most scenery-chewing performance to date. He’s part Tony Montana, part Al Capone, but above all he recalls Pacino’s turn as ‘Big Boy’ Caprice in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, only more cartoonish and without the aid of so much make-up. In any other film, Penn would steal the show, but that would be ignoring Nick Nolte’s baffling, incoherent appearance as the Chief of Police, for which the direction must have been ‘Tom Waits after dental surgery’.

Fleischer’s latest is a real hot-head of a movie. Full of thrills and spills, it tries to elbow its way into the line-up of gangster greats by brute force, but it offers nothing but bluff and bluster. The film is artless and vapid, over-stylised with no sense of style, and more interested in cosplay than characters. It may look pretty, and it may act tough, but Gangster Squad is as dumb as they come.

Gangster Squad is out in UK cinemas now.

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