Shot in bright, shiny cartoon colors rather than noir shadows, Reuben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad takes us back to the darkest days of Los Angeles that never were, circa 1949, when cops, judges and politicians were up for sale. The highest bidder is real-life gangster Mickey Cohen, who turned the postwar City of Angels into a city of sex, money, power, and vice.
Curtis Hanson’s delirious, delightful L.A. Confidential (which is what we assume Gangster Squad aspires to) adopted its source material’s hard-boiled, pulpy prose with unblinking, unwavering conviction and was almost irreproachably well-written (Hanson and Brian Helgeland won an Oscar for the screenplay). Their movie was a dark, moody, volatile neo-noir with the heart and soul of a classic. Fleischer’s film is never really sure what it is, jarringly shifting from light humor to heavy bloodshed in a split second. The director, best known for the thoroughly enjoyable, giddy Zombieland isn’t quite sure what to do with a semi-serious crime film. He seems out of his element and out of his depth, creating an inconsistent tone that sometimes borders on parody but doesn’t even satisfy as such.
The film Gangster Squad most resembles, however, is not L.A. Confidential, but Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables—unfortunately without the benefit of a David Mamet script—as Irish LAPD Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin) is given orders by the incorruptible Chief Parker (a thankless role played by Nolte, whose gruff and gravelly voice was made for the genre) to recruit an off-the-books squad of cops to wage guerilla war against Cohen. O’Mara is a no-nonsense straight arrow veteran with a supportive, seriously pregnant wife (a warm Mireille Enos) in lieu of a personality and a yen for fighting the good fight. “The whole town is under water,” the sergeant is reminded; “you’re grabbing a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit.”
His rogue team of misfits includes a sly old coot with a legendary aim (Robert Patrick) and his Mexican side-kick (Michael Peña), an improbable (for the era) black detective (Anthony Mackie), and a high-tech surveillance expert (Giovanni Ribisi).The most interesting squad member is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a charming, boozing ladies’ man who “talks smart,” but “is dumb where it counts,” falling hard for Cohen’s moll Grace (Emma Stone). The actors’ smoldering chemistry, which sizzled in Crazy Stupid Love’s superior romance, here rather fizzles.
As the gangster, Sean Penn is sometimes scary, sometimes unintentionally funny; he fumes and storms, liable to explode at any moment. Cohen, a brutal ex-boxer who climbed his way up from nothing now presides over an ever-expanding criminal empire of gambling, dope, and prostitution. He has the guts, brains, merciless determination, and right hook for crime, and a kind of feral intensity that approaches the animalistic ferocity of Scarface (De Palma, not Hawks).
The reason I reference so many films here is that Gangster Squad can look like a pastiche of other, better movies—and don’t even get me started on the Chinatown shootout, Jake. The comparisons are not in Fleischer’s favor.
One of the few pleasures of watching the film derives from the dazzling, meticulous recreation of the place and time. Reveling in the joy it is to revisit vintage Hollywood landmarks like Slapsy Maxie’s, however, is more a testament to the talent of cinematographer Dion Beebe (the man behind the beauty and poetry of Memoirs of a Geisha), and the expert costume and production designers rather than Fleischer’s direction. The rich textures and smoky color palette give the gloss and moody atmosphere of lavish nightlife a kind of superficial brilliance, allowing you to get caught up in the shadowy, stocking-ed, fedora-ed and cigarette-filled opulence long enough to momentarily forget about the inept, inert plot. But even the gorgeous imagery is somehow off; it’s too slick, too stylish (yes, even for a noir), at times resembling the anodyne sheen of a high-end ad rather than the grit and substance of the crime genre. The art direction and cinematography is exquisite, but as artificial as the stunning set pieces Beebe shot for Chicago.
In the first half of the film there’s a slow-motion montage of people getting thrown across rooms and through windows as the cops begin to break down on Cohen’s operations. I couldn’t help but think the entire film adds up to little more than that one sequence; bullets and bodies fly, explode, and fall in flashy closeups, luxurious slow motion shootouts, and impossibly digitalized car chase scenes, with fiery one-liners, crowd-pleasing quips and sight gags thrown in for good measure.
The violence is indifferent and indistinguishable, conceived and choreographed in generic shots. The biggest, bloodiest, final shootout is little more than an extension of what has come before, complete with a gold Christmas tree ornament shattering in suspended slo-mo as Cohen croons with Tony Montana-worthy glee, “Here comes Santy Claus!” It’s all pretty and fun, but Gangster Squad isn’t hard-boiled, it’s over-cooked.