Movie Review: Gangster Squad masks its flaws in star power
The movie is called Gangster Squad.
A name like that should tip you off to the dramatic ambitions at hand. We haven’t seen a title like that since Cowboys vs. Aliens, nor have we seen such a simple premise with so much star power thrown its way. Cops go vigilante, a mob boss fights back, and it’s all set against the backdrop of LA in its most evocative era. Combine that with a cast including Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone, and it seems like a solid recipe for entertainment.
In many ways it succeeds. The cast, especially Ryan Gosling as the too-cool LA cop, is immensely charismatic and often quite funny. Sean Penn gets angry as kingpin Mickey Cohen, offering up some powerful scene chewing moments. Emma Stone seems to fit that era even better than our current one.
Interesting themes brew at the surface level, with war heroes who have come home and only know how to fight. It’s an idea that’s never fully explored as much as it’s outright said, though, and that’s indicative of Gangster Squad’s major flaw—it doesn’t earn any of its attempts at depth or emotional punch.
When the cast is smooth-talking or shooting their way through a situation, Gangster Squad works. It’s when the film attempts to tug at your heartstrings that it begins to ring false. Had it stuck to its strengths it could have been forgiven for characters that lack depth, but as soon as they’re forced to be more well-rounded it’s hard to ignore how empty the film feels.
Had Gangster Squad maintained the light tone it establishes at the outset, we would have had a fun, kinetic romp through a “true story” with a whole lot of artistic license. Because it aims higher, in a way it opens itself up to some damaging critique. Obvious, silly cliches and one-dimensional characters are fine when they’re used for effect, but as the film drags along it’s clear that it’s trying to accomplish too much with what it has.
On the other hand, had the film taken more care with its character development it could have been cool and touching in equal measure. As it stands, the moments where a character mourns another character, or a heated argument ignites between two lovers, we are left feeling like voyeurs, stepping in on moments that aren’t our business. We aren’t invited into these characters lives, so why do we see their most emotional moments?
Still, if you just want to see an ensemble of great actors ham it up as vigilante cops and violent gangsters, Gangster Squad provides decent cops and robbers thrills. There are maybe a million better gangster movies, but none of them have the imminent charms of Ryan Gosling and company.