The Monocle – “Gangster Squad”

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Will Beall
Released: January 11th, 2012
Theatre watched at: AMC Century City, Los Angeles

Disappointing–that’s all I really have to say. This is one of those times where the trailer was put together far better than the actual film…or maybe it was Jay-Z, whatever. Either way, director Ruben Fleischer, whose films include the action comedies Zombieland (2009) and 30 Minutes or Less (2011), takes a stab at the crime genre with his new 50’s action flick Gangster Squad, and I’m sad to say that he just misses the meat. It’s not very often you get comedy directors becoming bold enough to step outside of their comfort zone and create something that’s meant to be crafted with a much more keen sense of detail and style than they are use to, but it occasionally happens, and when it does, their first times don’t usually hit home. I’m happy to announce Fleishcer at least falls into the “Expected” category.

What could have been a promising crime film, with its gifted and diverse supporting cast as well as a handful of creative ideas for style, is dumbed down to a marginally decent and ultimately empty action movie. Set in 1949 Los Angeles, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has become the most feared and respected gangster in the criminal underworld with such power that he has taken control of the city’s law system, and now has his eyes set to take complete control of the entire state. Los Angeles Police Department officers Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), and four other recruits Colman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), form a secret unit operating under no laws that call themselves the “Gangster Squad.” Their mission: to take down and arrest Cohen by dismantling his operations to expand his control over to the East Coast.

Gangster Squad‘s biggest snag is the utter lack of substance in its characters–how are you going to have a group of some of today’s, relatively, standout class of actors and not give a rat’s cheese about them? Not only does Fleischer brush past the recruitment process of the squad in the beginning of the film, the rest of it pays little to no attention to any of the supporting cast other than when they need to be used for the sake of mortal realism and, to lesser affect, emotional punch. Such a wasted cast of Mackie, Ribisi, Pena, and Patrick. As for our main players: Brolin, Gosling, and Penn, they really try their best to give these characters mannerisms and accents to liven up their screen presence, but it’s all for nothing with such a derivative and dull script that can’t build up to a one-liner to save it’s life. I was expecting Penn to be the savior of the lot, the sneak peak of his performance in the trailer had me sold originally, and in all fairness, he has moments of brilliance in the film, but you can only go so far when you realize your character is written to be one-sided. The beautiful Emma Stone is also wasted as the provocative Grace Faraday, Cohen’s social etiquette teacher/lover who falls for Gosling’s character Wooters. It’s not so much that Stone and Gosling’s chemistry is way off than it was in Crazy, Stupid, Love, but the fact that her character ends up being useless to the narrative in every way and is solely there to give Gosling’s character a damsel to stand next to–Princess Peach has been in more distress.

There’s nothing deeper about the narrative than what has been stated above, so we can skip that. The writing is dull, anything that comes before an obvious one-liner is so straightforward you can pretty much stop listening and understand exactly what is going on. What makes a great team story? When the characters learn important core attributes from their fellow partners or at least play off their current attributes to bring to light social boundaries! I feel in terms of morality and principles, all the characters leave the same page they arrive at by the end of the film; I swear the speech Brolin’s character makes says exactly this “let’s all agree right now that we are all pretty much in the same mentality, let’s conform our thoughts so we don’t have to deal with our personal perspectives that may just lead into long, talky sequences, and let’s just take Cohen down for the sake of the movie’s runtime and budget. Now let’s go!”

I’ll give a few points to the film for attempted style, keyword being “attempted.” In fact, the most notable scene is when Wooters enters one of Coehn’s clubs in a state of rage after having witnessed civilians getting shot at. The camera seems to be used as an extension of Gosling’s body, and so the dizzying yet connected perspective we get of Wooters’s anger is a strong one, and an inventive way of using such a technique. Another small burst of style can be found in the decent car chase sequence involving WWII stick grenades, it’s fairly well orchestrated as the camera gives us some wide airy moments to realize that there are in fact 4-5 cars racing on the barren grass road with people shooting each other. Again, contrary to the trailer, that by now I realize took the best parts, the flare I was expecting comes in tiny flashes that are simply dropped and used for the moment instead of looming and taking a hold of the time period to give us a truly fresh perspective on the genre.

There’s honestly not much I can recommend for anyone here unless you would do anything to see Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone on screen. Again, very disappointing but only because I was really looking forward to some quality acting along with some stylish action. That’s the last time I let a trailer take a hold of my psyche before I realize who the director is!

Bow Tie Score - 2.0