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Movie Review: Gangster Squad


A few weeks ago I compared a film to an impromptu casserole made from available ingredients on your pantry shelf.  So let’s stick with the culinary metaphor once again and whip up a big pot of movie soup.

You start with two cups of Chinatown, two cups of L.A. Confidential, three cups of The Untouchables, and a sprinkle or two of Scarface, both the 1932 Howard Hawks original and the Brian DePalma 1984 version. Add in the new ingredients of an overripe script, mediocre to embarrassing performances, and of course, buckets of bullets, blood, and bodies. Let stew for several months, then release to theatres. Whadda ya got? You’re right… it’s Gangster Squad.


This is a Hollywoodization of an actual event in 1949 Los Angeles, in which the chief of police selected a hand-picked crew, took away their badges so they could work outside the law, all in order to crush the east coast mobster Mickey Cohen who had grand plans to conquer the west coast.

Director Ruben Fleischer is primarily known as a short-film and comedy TV helmer. He received much acclaim for his comedy of the undead, Zombieland with Woody Harrelson, a couple of years ago.  Unfortunately, he tries to infuse Gangster Squad with a sense of zaniness that does not befit the subject matter. Parts of this film are so loopy, I almost expected Bob Hoskins and Roger Rabbit to show up in cameos.

The script by Will Beall, who until now has only worked on the TV series Castle for a couple of year, throws out lines of dialogue that are jaw-dropping awful. The film looks good, thanks to the participation of Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe, and the various folks who do art direction and set decoration.

The cast is comprised most of people who can do better, and have done better. The usually capable Josh Brolin looks bewildered. Ryan Gosling gives the impression that maybe he’s in another movie…or wishes he were. Nick Nolte is his gruff, growly self, and that’s ok. He’s comfortable with it, and we’re used to it. But whoever came up with the idea of casting the barely adequate Emma Stone as a film noir film fatale must have been playing a prank. The role would have been much sexier had the animated Jessica Rabbit done it. Then there’s Sean Penn, a talented guy both in front of and behind the camera giving an eye-rolling, lip-sneering turn as Mickey Cohen. He should have known better.

If you’re thinking that you’ve heard of this film before, yes, it’s the one that was withdrawn from its original release date in September because of the movie theatre massacre in Aurora, Colorado last July. There was a big set piece in the finale of the film that had gangsters with Tommy guns blazing mowing down an audience from behind the screen in a movie theatre. The scene was cut and replaced with a similar shootout in Chinatown. I like action films, and I certainly can’t envision a movie industry without guns. But doesn’t it seem like when you get to the point that entertainment is overshadowed by reality that it’s time to get much more creative in what’s on the screen. After all, one of the points of a movie is to escape into the dark for a couple of hours and forget reality.

So how about I make you a deal… if you want to see a sensationally good gangster movie, here’s what you do. Gangster Squad is set in 1949, which is also the same year the classic White Heat from director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney was released. Rent that on DVD and you’ll see what a really great gangster movie is all about.

The R-rated bullet blasting, blood-spurting, body bag flick Gangster Squad is currently assaulting your senses a shooting gallery near you.