You may not have seen Gangster Squad yet, but if you’ve seen The Untouchables, you probably don’t have to. Director Ruben Fleischer ( Zombieland, 30 Minutes Or Less) has made a comic book gangster flick so deeply indebted to the 1987 Brian DePalma classic that some scenes feel like they were lifted from it wholesale. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so at least it’s a good sign that The Untouchables has achieved the classic status it deserves. However, that also makes watching Gangster Squad a somewhat joyless endeavor since it’s impossible to shake the feeling that you’ve seen this all before and you’ve seen it done far better as well.
Granted, there were many similar squads of cops set up to take down big time gangsters back in the day, but that doesn’t mean the movie versions of those stories need to be so similar. There are plenty of other problems with Gangster Squad as well and despite them all, it is a decent slice of tommy gun entertainment. The trouble is when you go out of your way to draw comparisons between your mediocre movie and a classic, it’s only going to make the flaws stick out that much more.They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so at least the existence of Gangster Squad is a good sign that The Untouchables has achieved the classic status it deserves.
Josh Brolin stars in Kevin Costner’s role as an honest cop assigned by a grizzled police chief (Nick Nolte aka the man born to play grizzled police chiefs) to take down gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). A former boxer with a love for bare knuckle beat downs, Penn’s crime lord has murdered his way into controlling the entire city of dreams and needs to be stopped. So, Brolin is assigned to do things off the book and bring that silly man down no matter what it takes. Brolin starts assembling a team with the likes of Robert Patrick (aka the T1000 in T2) as the grizzled sharpshooter, Michael Pena as his giddy young assistant, and Giovani Ribisi as the brainy surveillance man. The only thing Brolin really needs is a smooth talking cop with connections to the underground and preferably one played by Ryan Gosling. The good news is that Gosling is in the movie, the bad news is that he’s not interested. However, do you think that might change once Gosling starts dating Penn’s arm candy (Emma Stone) or if the scrappy young shoeshine boy he knows is killed (yep, that really happens)? So, the gang’s all here and the bad guy is suitably evil, looks like it’s time for a good fashion battle of cops n’ robbers, right?
Right. You get what exactly what’s promised on the package with Gangster Squad and it’s not all bad. Ruben Fleischer at least has the good sense to adopt whiplash pacing and surprisingly plentiful bouts of violence in the film with his comic book gangster aesthetic. If nothing else, the film is never boring and has a strong lead at its core. As he already proved in Men In Black III, Josh Brolin can provide a grounding presence to any movie and comes out unscathed. Patrick, Ribisi, and Pena are similarly talented enough to make their miniscule roles interesting and that’s sadly where the good news ends. Aside from entire plot beats ripped from The Untouchables, the film is riddled with crime movie clichés. Considering that it’s all supposedly inspired by true events, Will Beall’s screenplay is a particularly disappointing slapdash effort. He’s clearly going for an old timey movie charms, but lines like “whose the tomato?” just can’t sound natural coming out of any actor’s mouth these days and including a shoeshine boy simply to be murdered and advance the plot is the type of thing that should get people banned from the act of writing entirely.
Then there’s Sean Penn, playing a role that’s comprised exclusively of monologues and overacting so huge that even Nicolas Cage will feel that he went to far. To counter balance that is Ryan Gosling, a once supremely talented actor who in the wake of Drive seems to have decided that leaning against doorframes and saying every line in a monotone through a blank stare somehow qualifies as acting. He underplays the role so much that he might as well not even be there (perhaps it was his attempt to balance out Penn’s mugging). Stone’s character is so tacked on that her role isn’t even worth discussing other than the fact that thanks to the overly digitally manipulated photography (which attempts to paint a deliberately dated pulpy Technicolor sheen over the images, but looks like a thin layer of CGI) in the first half of the movie the only things visible on her bleached white face are eyes, nostrils, an lips. I guess they only wanted hire her red hair and smile.
So, Gangster Squad is definitely a bit of a mess. A film defined too much by the creators’ love of other movies rather than any attempt to actually tell a fresh story. Overacting and ludicrously over-the-top violence more inspired by Call Of Duty than period crimes films ensure that it will never be taken seriously. Granted, Fleischer is going for a comic book style of gangster movie like The Untouchables that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. However, he’s no Brian DePalma and doesn’t have the refined sense of movie grammar or tongue-in-cheek humor to pull it off. It’s a perfectly pleasant entertaining crime picture, but nothing remotely close to the movies it apes or worthy of the talent assembled to stand in front of the camera. The film can only be described as a disappointment, but at least one that’s fairly entertaining to watch go wrong. That’s not much, but in the post-Oscar January movie dumping ground when all of the studios unload a year’s worth of failure, this is sadly about as good as it gets.