Posted January 31, 2013 by Nicolo Parungo in Movies/TV

Movie Review: Gangster Squad

Read the prologue carefully, it states that the movie is inspired by a true story. INSPIRED, not based on. The film is as accurate to the story of Mickey Cohen as Inglorious Bastards was to the death of Hitler. Gangster Squad is pure style over substance; every character is a cliché from noir and western films (more on that later), and chooses sweeping action over character based drama. With that last sentence, I should be condemning this film to cliché movie hell and recommending all of you to not watch it, but I won’t. The film might just be all flash, but somehow director Ruben Fleisher pulls it off!

The poster of Gangster Squad

Let me just state that Gangster Squad isn’t much of a noir movie even if it looks like one– and believe me it does. It’s set in post World War 2 Los Angeles, and corruption is everywhere! Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) owns the city and has everyone bought. Morals are put into question as the only way to bring him down is through brute force and illegal means as Sgt. John Omara (Josh Brolin) must assemble a team to bring the mad man down– you get the gist. The production design for this movie is FANTASTIC. Everything from the costumes to the settings and even the weapons come straight from the genre. Honestly, that’s part of the film’s charm because despite looking the part of noir it sure doesn’t act it, and that actually works in the film’s favour. Everything is bright and colourful with neon lights everywhere despite all the doom and gloom, which you normally wouldn’t see in a typical gangster movie, which may be because it’s not a gangster movie. For all purposes intended, it’s actually an over-the-top gangster cartoon; and that’s where the film succeeds.

The story is typical noir, but easy to follow; like I said, it’s all flash. There isn’t too much depth and every character is an archetype of the noir genre, but there are clear influences from the western film genre as well. Omara has to form a team of outlaws for one, but there are also jail breaks and intense shoot outs. It even has Robert Patrick as a REVOLVER SWINGING COWBOY WITH A MEXICAN SIDEKICK (played by Michael Pena)! What’s amazing is that the mixture of genres doesn’t feel forced at all; everything feels natural when it shouldn’t.  In fact the direction of the film is all around great because Fleisher characterizes his cartoon cast through their actions– a good example of showing and not telling. We can tell Omara’s a good man, not just because he’s the main character, but because he can’t lie to his wife about forming a group of vigilantes. We know that Cohen is a mad man because he orders his henchmen to rip a chained witness of his crimes in half; we also know he’s untouchable because he jokes around with the press about his crimes. We learn that Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is a ladies’ man because of how he easily beds Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) despite his blunt honesty. It’s all well done– I can’t even joke about it.

Penn vs Brolin

I’m just Joshin with ya!

Part of that success lies with the cast. Josh Brolin as Omara is solid in his role as lead protagonist even though the script doesn’t demand too much from him. The aforementioned scene of him not being able to lie to his wife is very well done. He’s pretty much the straight man in a film full of animated personalities, which kind of hurts the character. Brolin is very vanilla compared to everyone else. It’s not his fault, but he does stick out like a sore thumb. We do still root for him to win though and that’s thanks to Sean Penn, who probably has the most personality of the cast despite being incredibly one dimensional. He plays an over-the-top psychopath extremely well, obviously more Joker from Batman than the actual Mickey Cohen. He’s pure evil and isn’t sympathetic at all, which is a shocker because I’ve always pictured him as being too serious for films like this. I can now imagine him kicking puppies then eating them afterwards. He’s THAT despicable.

Oddly enough it’s Gosling who’s the standout in this film. While the script is fairly easy for Penn and Brolin (Gangster Joker for Penn and Policeman John Cena for Brolin), it asks for a bit more from Gosling. His character starts out being ok with all the corruption before the death of an innocent makes him snap and he joins Omara’s team. Despite a small character change, he never loses his charm or his too-cool-for-school attitude– guess he believes in YOLO. He’s probably the most complex character in the movie, which means a lot considering how the movie’s charm is everyone being a cliché. His chemistry with Emma Stone is good, though not nearly as great as it was in Crazy, Stupid Love. Stone, on the other hand, has the weakest character in the movie. I know it’s full of archetypes so I should be ok with it, but seeing Emma being relegated to damsel-in-distress status is disappointing, which may be because I got used to her in standout roles like Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-man or the lead in Easy A; seeing Stone’s personality contained is quite sad.

Ryan and Emma

A dame to drink for…

The rest of the cast is just alright, with the exception of Robert Patrick as an awesome gangster killing cowboy, which might seriously be the greatest movie role in the history of EVER! Anthony Mackie could have been more interesting considering how he’s a black detective in the 1940’s; instead he’s just a bad-ass knife thrower which also adds to the western elements, but not to his character. Giovanni Ribisi is the strategist of the group and supposedly the heart, but he just drags the film down a bit. At one point, he asks Omara what the difference is between him and Cohen since they’re both doing illegal things. It’s supposed to be meta-textual, which I can appreciate, but hurts the film considering how it’s supposed to be a B-Movie on steroids. Awesome steroids!

If you can accept the fact that it’s not trying to win an Academy Award, then you’ll probably like Gangster Squad as much as I did. Fleischer pulls off the B-movie appeal and adds great directing and an awesome cast to boot.

Special thanks to Warner Bros. for the invite! For more movie reviews, you can check here.





Nicolo Parungo