Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writers: Will Beall, from the book by Paul Lieberman
Starring: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte
Length: 113 min.
In Los Angeles, 1949, mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) controls the city. He has his hands in the pockets of political figures and most of the police force. There is little to stop him from expanding.
In a last effort to overthrow Cohen and regain some semblance of order in the city, the chief of police (Nick Nolte) secretly authorises a squad of police sergeants to track down Cohen’s crew and bring him to justice. Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is tasked with assembling and leading this squad.
Gangster Squad‘s cast and décor are its primary attractions. The film features big names, plenty of eye candy, and sharp 40s-style costumes and cars. It would be reasonable to assume that the script must be of a high quality to attract this calibre of cast. Sadly, this is not so. Surprises are few, character development and interest are minimal, and dialogue is sometimes obvious and clichéd.
The script also falls into the trap of allotting characters too much expository dialogue. O’Mara’s wife Connie, ably played by The Killing‘s Mireille Enos, seems to exist solely to explain the backstory between herself and her husband. While she also handpicks the squad her husband is to work with, her decision to be involved is so unexpected it stretches believability.
Considering the material these talented actors must contend with, it’s a testament to their abilities that they manage to bring some depth to their characters. Nevertheless, there is simply not enough dimension to or development of these cardboard cut-outs to make us care about their fates when events turn ugly. Even a performer as accomplished as Sean Penn can do little more than go through the motions; he’s never ruthless enough to be shocking and never reveals any compassion or weakness that would generate our empathy, or even allow us to understand his motivations.
Director Ruben Fleischer ensures we have plenty to keep our eyes engaged when our minds wander. Aesthetically, there is little to fault in Gangster Squad; the glamour, music and styling of the 40s come through wonderfully. Fleischer also captures some endearing moments between his stars, particularly those between Ryan Gosling, as the wonderfully named Jerry Wooters, and Emma Stone, as Grace Faraday, Cohen’s main squeeze.
Once Gangster Squad passes the halfway mark it begins to feel as though the filmmakers are content merely filling in the gaps between the gun fights and chase scenes. Each of these sequences is thrilling and cleverly conceived and executed, but without the foundations of character and story they cannot provide enough substance to carry the film.
Gangster Squad delivers on its fundamental promises: it has gangsters, cops and plenty of chases. It just isn’t interested in venturing beyond that.