Gangster Squad: A Crime Against Cinema

by Ethan Alter January 11, 2013 6:01 am
<i>Gangster Squad</i>: A Crime Against Cinema

The easiest way to ease into a discussion of Gangster Squad, the fedora-era set, City of Angels-based cops vs. crooks action movie from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, is to describe what the movie is not. For starters, it's not a serious take on old-school film noir in the tradition of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Neither is it a twisty detective story like The Big Sleep or square-jawed, no-nonsense crime picture like The Public Enemy. It's also not a richly stylized comic book take on the period like Dick Tracy. And it's definitely not a successful piece of pop art mythmaking like the film it most clearly aspires to be, Brian De Palma's The Untouchables. Above all, in case you couldn't tell already, it's also not a good movie.

So given all the things that the movie is not, what exactly is Gangster Squad then? Well, from where I was sitting, it mainly resembled an excuse for a group of overeager kids to play dress-up in their mom and dad's clothes on a major studio's dime. The amount of cash the filmmakers have on hand (which ranges from $50 to $80 million depending on what source you choose to believe) allows them to create a slick package that (mostly) holds your attention while the film is unspooling, but in hindsight, boy does Gangster Squad seem extra lousy -- an empty-headed, directionless trip back to a time and place that nobody involved has an interest in recreating with any sense of authenticity and/or insight.

To be fair to the movie for a moment, it's possible that the film's vision was compromised by the mandated reshoots and recuts that pushed it back from its original berth last September to now, a move that was the result of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado -- an event that echoed a movie massacre scene that was originally set to serve as the movie's climax. Still, I have a suspicion that Gangster Squad was in trouble long before that, largely due to the fact that Fleischer's approach to the material is all over the place. His previous two features, Zombieland and the underrated 30 Minutes or Less, are both high-concept mainstream comedies that riff on specific movie genres (zombie flicks in the case of the former, obviously, and '80s buddy action comedies with the latter), but develop their own comic rhythm based on the interplay of their respective casts. Rather than continue in that vein, Fleischer clearly felt compelled to take this assignment more seriously -- because there's no such thing as funny gangsters, right? -- so he consigns wit to the edges of the frame (the funniest gag in the movie is a smash cut from some poor guy getting his head bashed open to a close-up shot of a raw hamburger sizzling on the grill) and otherwise plays it straight down the middle.

But running away from his own sensibility forced Fleischer to borrow heavily from other people, which is why Gangster Squad so often feels like all of those aforementioned crime-time favorites (The Untouchables, The Public Enemy, Dick Tracy etc. etc.) were put in a blender and pureed to resemble this anonymous mush. The director's lack of confidence in his own vision is made even more apparent by all the showy visual stunts he feels compelled to throw at the movie at random times -- slow motion! freeze frames! cool guys not looking at explosions! -- because he can't think of anything more creative to do. He also manages to stage some of the ugliest action sequences I've seen in some time, particularly an extended car chase where I frequently had no idea who was pursuing whom because the cutting was so chaotic and the images so dimly lit.

Perhaps Fleischer's biggest sin, though, is wasting the absurdly talented cast he was able to recruit for the film, none of whom are given the opportunity to display a personality beyond their specific screen type. Hence, Josh Brolin spends the entire movie with a stern expression on his face as the severe Sarge, who heads up the titular crime-fighting unit, while Ryan Gosling smirks his way through the part of the ladykilling right-hand man. Elsewhere, Robert Patrick's elderly gunslinger is chiefly defined by his mustache and Giovanni Ribisi's nerdy tech guy by his glasses; Michael Peña and Anthony Mackie are occasionally granted a line or two as the token minorities; and Emma Stone awkwardly tries on the clothes of the femme fatale. (By the way, this movie contradicts my previously held opinion that Stone can do just about anything. She's certainly been made up to look the part of a '40s-era dame, but her stiff line readings and frozen facial expression of awkward panic are painful to watch; she's as out of her element in this role as Fleischer is behind the camera.) And then there's Sean Penn -- hiding behind a fake nose that appears to be made of equal parts Silly Putty and Hubba Bubba -- who cranks his personal volume setting up to 11 to play real-life kingpin, Mickey Cohen. It's as embarrassing a piece of showboating as the actor's famously derided turn in I Am Sam. Ben Stiller needs to immediately be granted the funds to make a Tropic Thunder sequel just so we can see Tugg Speedman's sure-to-be-legendary interpretation of Bugsy Siegel.

I just realized that I haven't provided a full synopsis of Gangster Squad's plot yet and you know what? I'm not going to. Mickey wants to rule L.A and Sarge and his handpicked crew are enlisted to stop him; bullets are fired, cars are chased, lots of people die... yadda yadda yadda. The plotting is so perfunctory, the movie doesn't much build to a climax as accidentally stumble upon it on the way to the closing credits. And Beall's one Big Idea behind the script -- namely, what happens when a bunch of cops are ordered to approach their jobs like gangsters? -- is all but ruined when he makes the boneheaded decision to have a character explicitly verbalize that exact theme, thus rendering it laughable rather than thought-provoking. I realize that the year is still young, but Gangster Squad immediately establishes itself as a leading contender for the Biggest Waste of Time, Talent and Money award on 2013 Year in Review lists come December.

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