Nobody does gangster movies like Warner Bros, which should make The Gangster Squad a cause for celebration. Big stars and snazzy hats; what’s not to love? Then we looked on with increasing skepticism as reshoots were ordered and the already questionable September release date got bumped to January. As it turns out, nobody thought past the “wouldn’t it be cool to make a gangster movie?” stage, a fact which becomes apparent the instant The Gangster Squad finishes the opening credits.
There’s a fascinating idea at its core, a heavily fictionalized account of the LAPD’s war against 40s-era gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). To wit, the chief (Nick Nolte) forms a secret squad of cops – outsiders and war veterans who operate off the books – to launch a literal guerrilla war against Cohen’s operations. Immediately, all kinds of intriguing questions come to mind. How would they run such a war? What kind of tactics would they employ? What ethical lines would they draw and how would that separate them from their quarry? It had the potential to put a fresh new spin in the genre, updating it for these troubled post-millennial times while still keeping a sheen of classic noir cool to it.
Having dropped that tasty nugget in our laps, The Gangster Squad proceeds to blithely ignore it for the remainder of the film. Instead, director Ruben Fleischer clings madly to stock scenes of frightening banality, as Sgt. O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and his band of vigilantes bust up brothels and gambling dens in an effort to bring Cohen to his knees. The film could be forgiven for changing so many details about Cohen’s life (which would make a fine movie on their own); but to replace it with something so empty and uninspired is a sign of deep and abiding problems.
It gets worse with the performances, which result not from a lack of talent so much as a dearth of interesting characters. Brolin does fine – his square jaw and hatchet face perfectly matching his tough-guy delivery – but Ryan Gosling desperately treads water as Brolin’s go-to man, while Emma Stone struggles to shed her girl-next-door sheen as the resident femme fatale. She and Gosling hum with chemistry, but their on-screen romance brings the already shaky momentum to a screeching halt. The rest of the squad carries a bevy of reliable names (including Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi and Anthony Mackie), all of whom collect a check and hustle through their duties as quickly as possible.
Penn himself gets the worst of it, a Method actor with absolutely nothing to latch on to. He must have jumped at the chance to portray the famous mobster, but his one-note psychopath constitutes a positive embarrassment as he sneers and twitches his way through tiresome repeats of the same kill-my-underlings-in-horrible-ways scenario. The Gangster Squad spins its wheels in so many ways, but nowhere does it waste so much potential so completely.
The film tries to make up for it with gorgeous production and costume design… which, as is so often the case, merely confirms the lack of substance beneath. The LA settings drip with atmosphere and the actors clearly relish their period costumes, which look damn good on each and every one of them. In this case, however, their handsome trappings become an active irritant: an excuse to distract us so that we don’t notice how weak the overall concept is beneath them.
Noir remains a potent lure for Hollywood, a chance to revel in its native city’s dark side and let big stars sink their teeth into hard-boiled dialogue. The Gangster Squad understands only the bare minimum of the genre it presumes to embrace, giving us a lot of pointless gestures and a cast that does nothing but glower at the camera. This won’t be the last bit of neo-noir, sealing its fate as disposable piffle for all time. That January release date fits it like a glove; we all have better things to do than watch movie stars playing cops-and-robbers.