Before the NBA season started (that's professional basketball for you non-athletically inclined folks) the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most storied franchises in American sports, looked primed to make a run at a title. Fittingly for the Hollywood squad they had assembled a team of stars, from franchise legend Kobe Bryant to offensive genius Steve Nash, big man Dwight Howard and Euro wizPauGasol. But then the season started and the big-budget Lakers flopped. Coach Mike Brown was fired, Kobe squabbled with Howard, and now the Lakers - a preseason title contender - will have to make a run for the ages just to make the playoffs.
What does this have to do with the recently-released "Gangster Squad"? Unfortunately, everything. On paper, this gangster movie should be a slam-dunk success. You've got Oscar-winner Sean Penn headlining the cast and two of the biggest current stars in Hollywood, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, looking to rekindle their "Crazy Stupid Love" romance. Throw in a stern-faced Josh Brolin and "Zombieland" director Ruben Fleischer for good measure, and it would seem producers found the recipe for cinematic success.
But not so fast. "Gangster Squad" is more style than substance. Based on a true story (yeah, we've all heard that one before) the film takes place in Los Angeles in 1949. Mobster Mickey Cohen rules the streets and owns the LAPD. This isn't what lone sheriff good-guy Sergeant John O'Mara (Brolin) fought to protect in World War II and he looks to take out Cohen, much to the chagrin of his pregnant wife. O'Mara is recruited by the LAPD chief to assemble an off-the-books outfit to wreak havoc on Cohen's operation, and he is only too happy to oblige.
Sounds great, right? The flash of Golden Age Hollywood, an A-list cast and a sizzling plot seem to come together in "Gangster Squad," but the movie falls flat on its face. Fleischer is clearly a clever director, but he can't seem to decide what type of movie he is making here. "Gangster Squad" is almost a parody of the stereotypical gangster movie, but without actually being funny. The characters are too one-dimensional for their own good - Cohen a cursing ball of fury, O'Mara a force that will stop at nothing to do good, Jerry Wooters (Gosling) a bad-boy cop who falls for the girl and Grace Faraday (Stone) the woman trapped in a relationship with the mobster.
All of the characters are in their place to advance the plot, but we never really learn much about any of them. Why does Cohen want to rule Los Angeles? Why does O'Mara care so much when he knows no one else does? Why is Faraday trapped? These are questions that never are really answered in the film. Unfortunately, by not addressing this, "Gangster Squad" seems like it is going through the mob movie motions, without actually trying to achieve anything great.
To be fair, "Gangster Squad" is a visually stunning movie. Seeing Los Angeles in the throws of a golden age - albeit one tainted by the mob - is incredible, and the attention to detail, from costumes to architecture, is astute.
Additionally, the on-screen charm of Gosling is undeniable. I would pay the price of admission just to see him read names from a telephone book (luckily, he does a lot more in "Gangster Squad") but that only makes the underdeveloped relationship between Wooters and Faraday that much more disappointing.
It also must be noted that "Gangster Squad" was pushed back from its original release date following the movie theater shootings this past summer in Aurora, Colo. The film was to feature a scene set in the legendary Grauman's Chinese Theatre where characters shot through the movie screen. The movie was pushed back and the scene was reshot (but seems to be just as violent as the original). That brings up another complaint - sometimes "Gangster Squad" seems violent for the sake of being violent. The topic of how media portrayals of violence impact society are not for this film review, but sometimes the shoot-'em-up style of "Gangster Squad" is a bit excessive.
It's too bad "Gangster Squad" turned out the way it did. There would have been no easy way to fix this movie - it is deeply flawed - but despite its shortcomings, there are glimmers of what could have been. Unfortunately, the movie is self-aware without providing commentary on the genre, more formulaic than clever.