The long delayed Gangster Squad is finally released this week, and tells the story of a squad of LA police officers who, in 1949, turned vigilante in order to run Chicago mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) out of town.
There has been a lot of talk about Gangster Squad. The first trailers were promising, but the film was pushed from a September release back to January because events in the film were thought to be too similar to what happened in Aurora, so the parts were reshot. Before that though, the internet was swimming with shots of Ryan Gosling with a tommy gun and Emma Stone in a beautiful dress. The question, though, remains… Is there more to the film than style?
The squad of the title is made up of O’Mara (Josh Brolin) Hendricks (Mick Betancourt), Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Harris (Anthony Mackie), Ramirez (Michael Pena) and Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). While each actor gives a decent performance, there are only two in this group that are developed past a brief hint at their back-story. Well, three, if you include the fact that Giovanni Ribisi’s character has kids.
Josh Brolin as John O’Mara is the leader of this unlikely band of vigilantes, formed after the police chief gives him leave to recruit a team, but warns them to leave their badges at home. O’Mara has a heavily pregnant wife and therefore, everything to lose, but we are told through dialogue that this is the kind of man that he is. Brolin does his best, but he becomes rather like the aging officer, too old for this shit and one day from retirement.
Perhaps the most interesting character arc through the film is that of Ryan Gosling as Jerry. It is hard to deny that Gosling looks great in a suit, but Jerry’s reasons for first refusing, then joining the squad give the audience a sense of the character. This then tallies with the fact that he is the romantic hero. Gosling is smooth as silk, but it seems as though he could not quite catch the rhythm of the dialogue at times.
Sean Penn seems to relish the idea of playing a real, over the top villain in a violent melodrama. There is barely a moment where he is not chewing the scenery, but strangely, it works and it is this overacting that adds weight to the melodrama created through the style of the film. The biggest loser in this wonderful cast is Emma Stone as love interest Grace Farraday. We have all seen by now what Emma Stone can do, so although she is given a couple of fun lines (‘I’ll go and bend my arm while you bend his ear’) and she looks great in a red dress, she basically plays the waiting game for most of the film.
Actually, that is a fair point to make of the film as a whole. As Gosling and Stone look fantastic in their costumes, but have little to do, the same goes for the film. The sets are fantastic and it is clear that a lot of time and attention went into recreating the look of LA in the late 1940s, but – like the swimming pool murder scene that is reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard – there is not a lot going on beneath the surface. The film jumps from set piece to set piece, rushing anything that happens in between for the sake of ramping up the action once again. The action is brutal, bloody and brilliantly paced, but there is little room for character development, dramatic tension, nuance or twists, thus the threads holding the action scenes together are the real weak points of the film. The cast are, for the most part, sadly underused and where the film looks great; it says all it has to say incredibly quickly.
Gangster Squad looks fantastic; rarely has LA looked quite so noir, but the absolute and absurd lack of story and character mean that the film relies on instant gratification that punches hard but never really leaves a mark.