Review: ‘Gangster Squad’ is stylish, but formulaic
Published: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 7:21 p.m.
Sometimes even the hoariest clichés in moviemaking work if you execute them with enough style.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone and Sean Penn
Thankfully, the cast and crew of “Gangster Squad” mostly get the fact that this is a movie that’s about style over substance. The film is a mash-up of bits and pieces from countless other gangster movies and crime dramas, most notably “The Untouchables” and “LA Confidential.” While it lacks the operatic grandeur of the former and intricate screenplay of the latter, it executes the “rogue cops taking on a criminal overlord” formula with enough panache that it’s a satisfying if flimsy take on a familiar story.
The plot of “Gangster Squad” reads like a checklist. To wit, it’s 1949 and LAPD officer John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is one of the only honest cops in a crooked city. Check. Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) gives O’Mara a big speech about how they’re losing the soul of Los Angeles to the powerful gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), then tells O’Mara to use whatever means necessary to bring Cohen down. Check. Then we get a montage showing O’Mara recruiting his crew of misfits: The streetwise smartmouth who’s hiding a sympathetic streak, the cool black guy, the geek, the old cowboy who’s more capable than he looks, the rookie who’s out of his depth. Check. Once the crew is assembled, they start hitting Cohen’s drug shipments and other criminal institutions, and then Cohen hits back, and so on.
To its credit, the movie uses its reliance on formula to keep things moving at a brisk pace. The characters are all archetypal, but the cast all embrace their archetypes and give us exactly what we’re expecting. Brolin has enough charisma and physicality to make O’Mara into a credible hero, and Penn makes Cohen into an equally credible villain, a man who has no qualms about inflicting violence on his enemies (like chaining them between two cars and then having the cars pull them in half).
It also helps that the world these archetypes inhabit is sharply drawn and looks beautiful. While the Los Angeles of “Gangster Squad” doesn’t bear much resemblance to the real thing, it brings the collective vision of the city — as filtered through decades of Hollywood mythmaking — vividly to life. The swanky clubs and gaudy hotels contrast sharply with the dingy back alleys and run-down mob hideouts in which most of the battles between O’Mara’s squad and Cohen’s goons take place, highlighting the battle between good and evil.
The action in these clashes is also very stylishly done. Director Ruben Fleischer, probably best known for his work on the lighthearted horror spoof “Zombieland,” knows how to stage fight sequences without making the camera jerk around like a hyperactive puppy. The highlight of these scenes is the climactic battle between O’Mara’s squad and Cohen’s minions at an LA hotel. As O’Mara and his comrades storm a lobby all decked out in Christmas decor, ornaments explode into jagged shards in slow motion, furniture is blown to bits and the cacophony of gunfire becomes a symphony of destruction.
The movie’s missteps are relatively minor, though they do prevent it from reaching the upper echelons of the crime genre. Ryan Gosling tries too hard to be cool as the jaded Sgt. Jerry Wooters, making him come off as a selfish jerk rather than an aloof veteran. Furthermore, the subplot involving his dalliances with Cohen’s girlfriend and “etiquette tutor” Grace (Emma Stone) is totally hackneyed, a plot contrivance of the worst kind. It’s a disservice to Stone, who’s a capable actress and deserves better. (That said, it should be noted that Stone lights up the screen in a blood red cocktail dress.)
“Gangster Squad” will not go down in the annals of movie history as a great movie, but it will go down as a fun one. It may not do anything particularly original, but it succeeds on its own terms, and sometimes that’s good enough.
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