There’s little to glean from Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad except for maybe a few modest laughs, whether the comedy be intentional or not, and some charm from Ryan Gosling (though, you could make that argument for any Gosling movie really). Despite its lack of offerings, the film does ironically provide an important lesson in filmmaking: ambition and ineptitude make a horrendous combination.
In his third feature film, Fleischer sets out to make a big mob film with a big cast, big premise and big style—a mighty task for the man behind the more niche Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less. The stars include Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie and several other major Hollywood names. The story centers on a brave cop (Brolin) who puts together a secret crew of police officers to take down the notorious boxer-turned-gangster, Mickey Cohen (Penn), in 1949 Los Angeles. Working with cinematographer Dion Beebe, Fleischer dresses Gangster Squad in a film noir look, and saddles it with all the aspirations of, say, a Goodfellas or L.A. Confidential. Unfortunately, this particular film doesn’t have a director who can realize them.
Fleischer simply creates a vision too big for his own pants. He puts together a solid cast, but he doesn’t know how to handle performers like Penn who, without the right restraint, tends to overact. Penn’s Cohen, with his cartoony makeup, exaggerated Brooklyn accent and ridiculous zeal, functions more as a caricature than a character and sometimes to an embarrassing degree. There’s also Brolin in what might just be his blandest role to date, the rest of the cast is pretty much wasted, as well.
The same goes for the story, as Fleischer, working with screenwriter Will Beall, takes a potentially rich and morally complex premise and transforms it into a hackneyed mess. It’s hackneyed in that we know all the stops, from the trite dialogue to a predictable subplot where the good guy (Gosling) falls for the bad guy’s girl (Stone), and a mess in that it lacks narrative coherence. Fleischer not only fails to develop the moral dilemma that stands front and center—police officers breaking the law to protect the law—which makes the bloody violence feel all the more exploitative. He also fails to find a consistent tone: The film teeters back and forth from drama to action to romance to comedy, all the while draped in visuals that are a hideous cluster of noir, pulp, realism and cartoons. (Many of the characters look like they were pulled straight from a Dick Tracy comic strip.)
From start to finish, Gangster Squad can never decide what it is or what it’s trying to do. The whole effort reeks of that all-too-common atrocious recipe: a director with an abundance of determination and ambition, with a multitude of ideas and a vision for something big and bold, coupled with an inability to pull it off. In time, Fleischer might be better equipped to handle the additional challenges presented by his own ambitions. Until then, consider Gangster Squad a young director’s “learning experience” viewers would do well to avoid.
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Will Beall
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie
Release Date: Jan. 11, 2013