The gangster movie has a great tradition in Hollywood, from Scarface in 1932 through The Godfather, the Scaface remake in 1983, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, Donnie Brasco, and LA Confidential, there are plenty of Oscars and plenty of box office returns scattered through those titles and more. Gangster Squad is the latest and laziest entry in the series. Where the other films, one way or another, were making a point about the times, about the culture, the nature of crime – both its addictive and destructive appeals – Gangster Squad seems to have little to say.
The title is the first indicator that all may not be well with this world. Gangster Squad sounds like the first name tossed out in a brain storming session and clearly lunch couldn’t come soon enough because that’s what they’ve gone with.
Add to the mix characters who are cardboard cut-outs who only have something to say when it fits to their ascribed role in the ensemble, rather than feeling like they are a part of this world. It’s not difficult to guess which members of the squad will make it to the end and which will be sacrificed. Central to this problem with the characterisation are Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. While it’s not hard to believe that two such attractive performers might be attracted to one another, we are given no reason to believe that either is a person in their own right – they exist only to add a dimension of tension (and sex?) to proceedings, neither appears to offer anything to the other.
Which brings me to a question. I’ve not seen Gosling in much. In fact, looking at his credits it looks like Drive is all I have seen him in (that said, I think I saw Fracture too, but if that’s the film I think it is, it’s as bland and forgettable as this parenthetical might suggest). So, I found his icy cool stuntman/getaway driver/psychopath turn in Drive to be pretty good but the nature of the role was such that it could have been great acting or it could have been a vacant human soul captured for the screen. Anyway, here, he is not good. In fact, he is more like an American David Beckham (though I have no idea if he can bend it). He is a piece of eye candy with an annoyingly squeaky voice that must surely put off those who may otherwise be attracted to him.
But I digress. More problematic with the film is the violence. I am not someone to shy away from some screen bloodshed – I am positively relishing the prospect of Django Unchained arriving on our screens next weekend – but violence should serve some kind of purpose, or speak something to the situation or characters, or offer something artistic (for this latter options, see The Raid). Here it is somewhat celebrated. Brolin and Gosling’s squad are let off the leash and asked to do anything to stop gangster Mickey Cohen. They are no longer police.
It is made very clear that Cohen is someone not to be messed with, taking out various rivals or lackeys in a variety of gruesome ways, but it is also made clear that it is perfectly acceptable to do anything to stop him. There is one voice of doubt about using these methods, but his concerns are pretty quickly snuffed out. But rather than the film making a point about how the pursuit of evil will stain the soul, there are no regrets. Ther eis no thought that these men are “better than that” – it’s pretty clear from early on that they aren’t. There’s no nuance here – these are not complicated characters of a James Ellroy bent, alas.
Add to that a glossy sheen which feels all too modern when laid next to the the subtle beauty of the evocation of the period in LA Confidential, and you have something which, all in all, feels far too MTV (if that’s not a trite and cliched criticism) for the subject matter. It seems clear that what is being attempted is an updating of the De Palma classic The Untouchables, a film which always felt perhaps a little too slick for its own good at the time (and perhaps I’m merely showing my age in criticising Gangster Squad), but when put alongside this, The Untouchables feels like a Scorsese study of time and character.
All of that said, there were some enjoyable sequences and it romps along at a fair pace (my biggest gripe about cinema of the last 10 years has been the escalating length of films to no discernible effect, but this clocks in at under 2 hours). It’s not totally without merit, but if you;ve not seen the movies I listed earlier, you have those to see before you get round to this one.
5/10 (4 stars)