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'Gangster Squad'

For a film with so much potential, it sadly falls flat.

The word "stylized" is getting bandied around quite a bit regarding Gangster Squad. Let’s just get it out of the way and say there’s certainly a reason for it. If you’re looking for the gritty realism of a Goodfellas or the operatic motions of The Godfather, this is no place for you.

But this movie isn’t aiming for the Oscars or the approval of qualified aesthetes worldwide.

Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is called in by his chief (Nick Nolte) to carry out some business against a sort of Angeleno gangster god. Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has managed to build a criminal empire stretching the city limits of Los Angeles, and the police force is buckling under the pressure. The chief takes advantage of its being 1949 and asks O’Mara to set up a guerilla-warfare-style police squadron to covertly fight Cohen and his cronies like they did five years before with the Nazis.

Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is a perennial charmer and reticent cop himself. He’s drafted for the Gangster Squad and, though disinterested at first, eventually enlists. In the meantime, he’s gotten mixed up with Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Their affair makes the tightrope walk the squad is attempting even more messy, and things only get crazier as time passes.

Gangster Squad - Official Trailer [HD]
The main problem with Gangster Squad is our awareness of its potential. The cast is peopled by men and women capable of truly stellar performances, but that's all made nil by a script more intent on getting as many 40-era slang terms in it than any degree of believability. There’s a lot to be said for archetypal storytelling, for following the "Hero’s Journey" format to the letter in order to build a new sort of mythology. But it becomes less about archetypal characters here and more about stereotypes. The damsel-in-distress, the blue-eyed youthful charmer, the calloused criminal and the cop just trying to do right are all here. But they’re here in their Screenwriting-101, just-learning-the-ropes forms.

As far as depth, the actors could only wade in the pool that writer Will Beall gave them. When a shootout is prefaced by one character shouting, “Here comes Santy Claus!” the immediate impulse is to chuckle, not be afraid.

As far as the filmmaking goes, this is definitely a fun movie to look at. The costuming is rapturous and cool, and the set pieces are bright, vibrant and mid-century chic. Shots are set up with a sense of muted color. Even here, though, there’s plenty of issues lacking resolution. Slow-motion sequences get to be a little too flashy, and certain stylistic decisions distract instead of add to the plot.

The main problem with Gangster Squad is our awareness of its potential.
What about the actors? On an individual level, everyone gives great performances. It’s a well-cast movie, and Sean Penn stands out as particularly capable of playing the greedy Mickey Cohen with the same authenticity as the politically optimistic Harvey Milk or the laid-back Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Gosling and Stone do what they do best—namely, acting well while respective members of the opposite sex get to ogle them for an hour and 50 minutes. Brolin gets a break from his recent tenure as a sordid type in the Coen Brothers’ recent films and plays a good guy anyone could root for.

But sadly, with a title like Gangster Squad, none of the characters ever achieve the sort of chemistry an ensemble movie like this should be aiming for.

Gangster Squad is all for entertainment and, in that sense, succeeds at showing the viewer a good time. Nonetheless, you’re left sitting in your seat, occasionally wondering if they’ve extended the “Keep the change, ya filthy animal” segment of Home Alone to a star-studded, feature-length movie.

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