Have you ever seen a movie poster than thought “oh hell yes, this has X in it… I love X… I bet this film will be great”? Sometimes the gamble pays off as the star in question is someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Will Smith. Sure, they’ll have the occasional off-film, but overall their hit rate is exceedingly high. On the other hand you have people like Samuel L. Jackson – a self-confessed workaholic, but is as likely to be in a fantastic genre-defining film, as he is a complete dud. It happens. You just hope that you don’t pick the “dud” film in someone’s career – or at least not the one that everyone bemoans as “not his / her best”. So that brings Gangster Squad into the limelight. Its cast has lots of really hot names, but do they meet our expectations?
Gangster Squad is roughly based on the book by Paul Lieberman, which retells the true story of post-World War II Los Angeles. It’s a time of gangsters, where Chicago ruled the United States of America and corruption was rife at every level as the country came to come to terms with post-war life. LA was ruled by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) – your archetypal gangster: a corrupter and a thoroughly deplorable individual. On the other side of the thin blue line you’ve got the newly established “Gangster Squad” – a secret group of police officers tasked with bringing down Cohen’s Empire. But can they succeed? Therein lies Gangster Squad.
But who is the Gangster Squad I hear you ask? Well, that’d be a team led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), which consists of half dozen of LA’s best, including Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick). Clearly some big names in that list – even Terminator 2‘s T-1000 is in there. How can they lose!? Throw Emma Stone into the mix as Cohen’s girlfriend / piece of arm candy, which Gosling‘s Wooters wants a piece of, then you have an explosive cocktail that should explode with all the sleaze and excitement of post-war USA… but the machine isn’t as good as the sum of its parts.
That’s not to say that all of its “parts” aren’t well oiled an firing away nicely. The two biggest assets of the film lie with the two leads: Josh Brolin and Sean Penn. Brolin portrays the 1940’s-50’s stoic police officer with remarkable conviction. In fact, if you were to throw Brolin back in time, you’d probably be convinced he belongs there anyway. He’s just cut from the right material to suit the time period – Men in Black 3‘s comparison to Tommy Lee Jones is still very apt. You can’t help but imagine this would be the part Jones would play should this have been shot 20 years ago. However, the real kudos needs to go to Sean Penn who is simply fantastic as Mickey Cohen. He’s vile. He’s offensive. He’s a dislikeable human being. A perfect mob boss. There’s a real conviction behind his acting, but then again, we’d expect no less from Penn considering his back catalogue. The only distracting thing? Those prosthetics. They’re almost as distracting at first as Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s in Looper. I just couldn’t help but think “what’s Mickey Rourke‘s Marv from Sin City doing in this flick?”. The fact that the film styles itself as a noir, much like Sin City did, only solidified these ideas in my head. It was effective makeup, but a little distracting at times.
However, the film falls down in many other areas to render it “enjoyable” rather than “great”. The plot, for a start, isn’t anything mind-blowing. As you can see from that description, it’s pretty much a case of good guys v bad guys. But then again, it’s a gangster movie; you were going to get that one way or another. The real let downs for me were Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Individually, I think these guys are fantastic actors, but here they just didn’t shine. When I think of Gosling I either think of his powerful performance in Drive or his suave showing in Crazy Stupid Love, but this is neither. His part tries to be cool and calm, with an undercurrent of love and malice, but it just doesn’t come across as it should. I’m pretty sure this year’s Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) written and directed Only God Forgives will set him back on track as the super hot property we know he is. Similarly, I feel that Stone was cast just as a name. Her role as Grace Faraday is quite disposable – any mid-20’s actress could have played the part equally as well. Whether she was cast owing to her past dealings with director Rubin Fleischer in Zombieland, or because her chemistry with Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love was so great, we’ll never know. Regardless, I just wasn’t that impressed with her performance here, which is a shame considering how much talent and charisma she has.
Ultimately, Gangster Squad just failed to ignite for me. It had its moments, and any time Penn was on-screen was fantastic, but it just felt a little too loose and meandering – perhaps 15 minutes longer than it should have been. It also lacked the punch that I expected from the cast. Maybe I should manage my expectations some more, but maybe not, because I know these actors are firing off at nearly the top of their game right now. We should always expect more.
So I guess the lesson here is to “never judge a book by its cover”, or “never judge a film based on a book by its poster credits”, which is nowhere near as catchy. Too much emphasis has been placed on Gosling in the marketing, when they should have really emphasised Penn‘s role, as he’s clearly the don here. A gnarled, prosthetic-ridden don… one that really needs to avenge the death of Goldie, who smelt like angels ought to smell. Oh wait, that’s Sin City‘s Marv again. Simple mistake.