'Gangster Squad' is ghastly
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I enjoy a good old-fashioned gangster picture as much as, if not more than, the next guy. So it's a shame that "Gangster Squad" is nothing like a good old-fashioned gangster picture. While it's a period piece that clearly relishes its evocation of neon-bright Los Angeles in 1949, it's hardly old-fashioned. And it's no good at all, either in the sense of "good" by itself, or "good" in relation to "old-fashioned." Point of fact, it's rather ghastly.
"Everyone carries a badge," star Josh Brolin, in character as war-hero-turned-honest-L.A.-cop John O'Mara, intones in voice-over at the movie's opening, going on to explain how we all carry some kind of representation of what we stand for. Yikes. The movie then shows us Sean Penn, in makeup sufficiently elaborate to evoke Warren Beatty's deliberately cartoonish movie of "Dick Tracy," doing a pretty good Bela Lugosi impersonation before dispatching a rival mobster in a fashion more in keeping with what some critics call "torture porn" than a crime picture, a crime picture claiming to be "inspired by a true story" at that.
This scene suggests an eccentric direction for "Gangster Squad," and that might have been refreshing, but this is, alas, a false clue. "Gangster Squad" isn't eccentric so much as it is torn between aggressive, insulting cliché-mongering and dribbling numbskull sensationalism. After establishing Penn's Mickey Cohen as an exceptionally bad bad guy, Brolin's voice-over returns to the movie to inform us that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. No, really, he says that. And so O'Mara, on the orders of an incorruptible police chief (Nick Nolte, sufficiently gruff to make you worry after his health), forms the titular undercover unit to hit Cohen's vice activities hard, and take back the City of Angels. (Of course O'Mara's pregnant wife, fearful for his safety, begs him, "Let Mickey Cohen have Los Angeles." Sure, but what'll happen to the school system, soon-to-be-mother?) O'Mara puts together a group notable for ethnic diversity, which is commendable in theory and also allows the movie to posture know-somethingishly about L.A.'s Central Avenue scene of the era. More significantly, it gives Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña a vehicle to waste their talents in. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone reunite here, after not giving off any particular chemistry in "Crazy Stupid Love," as casually indifferent cop turned crusader and good girl turned mobster mistress, respectively, and they go through the paces of what's supposed to be a fraught romance, resulting in scenes where he says, "Don't go," and she says, "Don't let me," and then they stand there and nothing happens. The script, which purports to be based on a nonfiction book, is as hoary a collection of tired plot points and overfamiliar character "beats" as has ever been put before a camera. The movie has been art-directed within an inch of its life, and shot with an eye to evoking three-strip Technicolor on steroids; its look is not displeasing at first, but it winds up delivering something like insulin shock to the eyes. The violence is nearly constant, and constantly overstated. Remember back when that special effect called "bullet time" started showing up in American movies, imported from Hong Kong action thrillers and refined in the likes of "The Matrix"? Yeah, me too. It was kind of neat then. The technologically refined variants of the effect that turn up in "Gangster Squad" might make you regret it was ever invented.
In a recent interview, sometimes-reluctant actor Penn referred to his work in this movie as having been "fun." It shows. Nobody can chew scenery with such incredibly precise modulation, and his delight in micromanaging gangster Cohen's fits, which deliberately recall the rages of Robert De Niro's Al Capone in Brian De Palma's 1987 "The Untouchables," is nearly palpable. It is not, however, particularly infectious. It's clear, too, that director Ruben Fleischer, having graduated from the mildly enjoyable but altogether too-knowing low-budget shenanigans of "Zombieland" and "30 Minutes or Less," had a blast pulling out the budgetary and special-effects stops; he's like a kid in an ICBM-launching site, as it were. It's never a pretty sight to see a director pass "Go" this way, turning from potential irritant to out-and-out menace. I can't wait not to see what he does next.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.