Film Review – Gangster Squad


Sean Penn making his mark as 2013's first big baddie.

Sean Penn making his mark as 2013’s first big baddie.

Gangster Squad, 2013’s first big-cast all-action picture, was released to cinemas last week; and for anticipatory fans such as myself, it came not a moment too soon. With a four-month extension of its release date, this is a film that has garnered a lot of attention in its pre-release, and in doing so it has given itself a lot to live up to. The story follows a special troop of Los Angeles police officers, put together to bring down the city’s major crime boss, Mickey Cohen. Directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and starring consistently reliable actors, such as Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, and Giovanni Ribisi, this could have been one of the better gangster films to grace our screens for a long time. Unfortunately, it did fall somewhat short of the mark on a lot of levels.

Watching the trailer, it gives off a sense of The Untouchables, for its inescapably similar plotline, as well as Dick Tracy, for its comical product design, over-animated backgrounds, and over-the-top prosthetics. However, when viewing the film, it comes off more as a surrealist comedy than a gritty crime drama. The opening scene sets the tone for the movie, with a man getting ripped by two attached cars. Although plausible, and quite possibly something that happened in Cohen’s reign, it seems logical, medically, that the man would rip apart at the joints rather than the midriff. And that seems to be the case throughout the remainder of the movie – going for standout cinematic surrealism, as opposed to the hardcore authenticity, a concept that its predecessors, The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential, seemed to do so well.

At times, the actions of, supposedly, seasoned police officers, some of which have military experience behind them, seemed farcical and completely nonsensical. Why would they raid a casino, without double-checking who was inside first? How can someone be a single-bullet, head hitting, crack-shot with a Tommy gun from thirty yards? Why would you call for another ammo clip, when you have a spare gun in your holster? Too many times there seemed to be moments of action added in, in order to build suspense, but which ended up distracting from the overall believability of a “true” story. Although that last part cannot be believed for a second.

The final gripe of this movie is with the characters. They were not badly acted, in fact Anthony Mackie was the standout star of the whole film, it was just that they all seemed far too two-dimensional: a cop with honour, a lothario, an old man, a smart-guy, a rookie with something to prove, and a knife-thrower (there’s always a knife-thrower in these films!), were all far too cliché, and with nothing to make them unique from any other ensemble piece. If the writers had taken more time to delve into characters’ backgrounds, and their underlying motives, making them less like a pastiche of been-done replicas, then the entire movie would have had a substance that it so readily needed.

That being said there are a lot of elements, which make up for a lack of realism, and do, overall, make this an entertaining piece.

As with all of Fleischer’s movies, this one uses slow motion to a tee, making the action sequences a lot more aesthetically pleasing than overused quick-cut method that audiences are now so frequently subjected to.  Furthermore, despite one or two questionable lines of dialogue, the acting was on the money. Each performer oozed suave, sophisticated mannerisms that have become a token of the gangster era, and made their character instantly likeable as an on-screen presence – even the villains.

The biggest asset that Gangster Squad had going, was the Tarantino-style references peppered throughout, which paid homage to a lot of its influences and predecessors. Elements such as the inclusion of Nick Nolte, star of the similarly themed Mulholland Falls, or the unmistakable Untouchables reference, with the attack on the house, was subtle yet attributive, giving it an element of class that movie-lovers will no doubt relish.

Overall, this is not a film for auteur-loving movie fanatics with a desire for a realistic portrayal of the crackdown on Mickey Cohen. Instead, what Gangster Squad portrays is a glitzy, glamorous portrayal of an over-exaggerated world, where everyone looks good smoking, and where carrying a gun is a way of life. For two hours of entertainment, this is definitely worth viewing. However, it will never be regarded as one of the all-time great gangster movies.

Overall – 3/5

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