Well, 2013 has begun and because I was smart enough to save my money and not see (sit through?) Texas Chainsaw 3D, the first film I get to review this year is actually one I saw a while back in December, Ruben Fleischer’s (director of one of my favorite comedies of recent years, Zombieland, and one of the most forgettable comedies of recent years, 30 Minutes Or Less) stylistic 1940s tale of heroism, gangsters, and a colorful-but-corrupt Los Angeles, Gangster Squad. Gangster Squad follows a team of LAPD Officers who go rogue as a secretly assembled team of cops who start to raid mob operations with no limits as to killing criminals in order to stop the infamous gangster, Mickey Cohen, from taking over Los Angeles.
I’m surprised, honestly, that Gangster Squad has assembled such a stellar cast. It’s not a bad film, by any means. It won’t be the worst of the year. But it certainly won’t be the best. It’ll lie somewhere in the middle, probably forgotten by the time summer movie season arrives. It’s just nothing fantastic. The stellar cast in question here is one that includes Oscar Nominees Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling, as well as big name actors and actresses like Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn, in addition to up-and-coming stars like Michael Pena (who gave one of 2012’s most underrated performances in End Of Watch) and the upcoming Captain America 2’s Anthony Mackie, all of whom are in fine form here. Ryan Gosling doesn’t really stand out like he has in previous performances in a personal favorite of mine, Drive, and one of the most overlooked films of 2011, The Ides Of March, but that’s more fault to the thin character he’s been given to play. I’d say the true star of the film is Josh Brolin, who has proved in the past few years that he can do many things, such as giving an Oscar-caliber performance in Milk (which also stars Gangster Squad’s Sean Penn), do an uncanny Tommy Lee Jones impression in Men In Black III, and proves here that he can dish up a good dash of old-fashioned rough-and-tough heroism. The other person whose character stands out (almost obnoxiously) is Sean Penn’s portrayal of famed real-life gangster Mickey Cohen. Penn’s a talented actor, and his presence is known whenever he’s on screen, but there’s a difference between deliciously over-the-top (a la Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained) and just plain over the top.
The story of Gangster Squad works adequately, despite the lack of many real surprises. It’s a slick-and-cool tale of classic police heroism against the corruption of a big city ran by a larger-than-life mobster that director Ruben Fleischer infuses enough stylistic, visual flair into to make it never boring, but never all that sophisticated or fantastic either. In Gangster Squad’s run-time, there’s loads of action to behold, and surprisingly enough, most of it is solid work, more focused on delivering sleek visual flair than overused shaky cam work most of the time, offering up a refreshing palette of color and cinematography. These things help make up for a story that satisfies fine in the theater, but doesn’t really offer up much to think about and remember as being all that great afterwards.
Gangster Squad’s time setting allows a rather gritty film to be bombastic in its use of color and production design. Standouts of said design are in fine form whenever the popular bar “Slapsy Maxie’s” is on screen, and even in the last-minute Chinatown sequence, which resulted from Gangster Squad’s infamous delay due to the Aurora theater shootings. The film’s best sequence, the final fight, is also the sequence in which Fleischer gets to have the most fun with his over-the-top, visually-astounding slow motion and stylistic flair, proving further that it is the best thing the film has going for it. Without it, you can’t help but feel it would all be kind of bland.
Gangster Squad undoubtedly comes at a rough time for gun violence in the media, and when I saw it the day of the Newtown shootings, I expected to find its violence tasteless and unnecessary at the time. And while some scenes do portray a gratuitous amount of almost Tarantino-level violence that comes out of nowhere, most of Gangster Squad’s violence feels justified, and redemptive, echoing a theme of the film that makes it more fun than your average action fare: heroism. This film is a heroic story, even by its concept, and through that, there’s a little more adrenaline in its action, power in its mediocre storytelling, and entertainment in its shoot-em-up violence. If anything, Gangster Squad is a fun L.A. crime story. Middle of the road. But for a January release, that’s pretty damn good.
FINAL GRADE: ★★★★★★ (6/10 stars)
FINAL SAY: Though predictable, rather forgettable, and mediocre in most respects, Gangster Squad is elevated by the star power of its stellar cast and colorful, stylistic action and production design choices from director Reuben Fleischer.
Gangster Squad will be released in theaters nationwide on January 11.