Josh Brolin, Sean Penn Sleep Through Dull ‘Gangster Squad’

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No votes yet Oscarman rating: 2.0/5.0
Rating: 2.0/5.0

CHICAGO – I know it’s only January but Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad” is sure to be one of the most disappointing films of 2013. Look at that cast! Look at them playing caricatures and doing absolutely nothing of interest! “Gangster Squad” is a total mess and absolutely none of it has to do with notorious reshoots after the shooting in Aurora that pushed the flick back four months. It has to do with a horrendous script, weak pacing, and some truly baffling decisions made by actors who almost always make the right ones. I love Fleischer’s “Zombieland,” think Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, & Emma Stone are among the most underrated actors alive and think Sean Penn is an all-time best. And yet I nearly hated this mess.

Part of the problem with “Gangster Squad” comes down to how well we’ve seen this story told in the past. Making a film reminiscent of “The Untouchables,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “L.A. Confidential” sets some high standards and there’s a sense of realism missing here that sinks the entire piece on so many levels. There are two ways to go here – highly stylized like De Palma or an attempt at period realism like HBO’s hit show. Fleischer went neither way, creating some stylish set pieces but telling a story that needed to be grounded in more than cliché to really work. “Gangster Squad” is shockingly predictable and that’s what really kills it. It’s just not interesting enough, especially with the writing of works like “Confidential,” “Bugsy,” or countless other L.A. crime stories with which to compare.

Gangster Squad
Gangster Squad
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Sean Penn plays a heavily made-up, marble-mouthed version of the legendary Mickey Cohen as he was trying to bring his brand of gangsterism to Los Angeles in the ‘40s and faced resistance from the police force and local bad guys. Penn plays Cohen as a force of nature, the kind of guy who seems to enjoy the physical fight as much as the chess game of true power. He likes to get his hands dirty. So does Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a family man who has told his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos of “The Killing”) that he will play it more safe but actually goes in the opposite direction when Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) asks him to form a “Gangster Squad,” an under-the-radar, away-from-the-rules group of cops who can fight illegal fire with fire.

O’Mara assembles a team in a montage that makes one think the pitch might have been “The Avengers Meets The Untouchables” that includes smooth talker Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Detective Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Detective Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and Detective Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). The “Gangster Squad” gets to wiretap, shoot the bad guy, and generally meet violence with violence. It’s a reimagining of Elliot Ness in the era of “The Dark Knight,” turning the classic crimefighter into a superhero.

Gangster Squad
Gangster Squad
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Which is really not a bad idea. Beautiful, talented people in a film about a legendary period of cops and robbers in American history sounds like a movie that should work, especially given the visual flair that Fleischer displayed in “Zombieland” and the undeniable skill of actors like Penn, Gosling, Brolin, Nolte, Mackie, and Pena. It’s an amazing ensemble. It’s an amazing ensemble given nothing to do in a simply horrendous script by Will Beall, a piece of work that offers paper-thin characters, predictable plotting, and generic set pieces. “Gangster Squad” is so stunningly predictable that one could nearly write themselves after the first few scenes. Sgt. Wooters first resists joining the Squad. Of course, he will. If you took a pool of the squad member most likely to become a casualty of the gang war halfway through the movie, 90% would get it right. Even the romances – Brolin and his wife and Gosling and the girl he tries to steal from Cohen (played by Emma Stone) – feel inert and dull. How on Earth can a movie with two people as beautiful and charismatic as Gosling and Stone produce so little heat? It’s almost an accomplishment.

Part of the reason for the film’s failure is it looks simply awful. The costume design reminds one of a show at a Disney theme park, what tourists think gangsters should look like. There’s nothing that feels more genuine than a Hollywood back lot and the cinematography is dull and uninspired. The movie has no personality even if Brolin and Gosling do their best to bring a square-jawed, old-fashioned sensibility to the work.

It’s as if no one got on the same page at any point in production. Josh Brolin & Ryan Gosling were making an old-fashioned drama while Ruben Fleischer made an action film and Sean Penn did something closer to “Dick Tracy.” Any of these choices might have worked. All of them at the same time did not.

“Gangster Squad” stars Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, and Robert Patrick. It was written by Will Beall and directed by Ruben Fleischer. It opens on January 11, 2013. content director Brian Tallerico

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