Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte
Warner Brothers is the spiritual home of the gangster picture. Back in the golden era of the 1930s and 1940s it was Warner Brothers who gave us the early classics of which helped established the genre, films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. Fast-forward to the 1960s and it was Warner Brothers who gave us the film which redefined the genre, Bonnie and Clyde, and their association continued through Martin Scorsese. While he has worked with a number of different studios through his career, it is no coincidence that it is with Warner Brothers that he made Mean Streets, Goodfellas and The Departed.
Warner Brothers’ latest offering in the genre, Gangster Squad, returns to the classic formula. Director Ruben Fleischer, best known for his comic work in films like Zombieland, takes us to post-war Los Angeles, a city that has lost its innocence inhabited by men who, having returned from the battlefield, can’t stop fighting. Los Angeles is under the thumb of Mickey Cohen, and Sgt. John O’Mara is given orders to put together a crack squad and go to war with him. However, despite its rather classic premise, unfortunately Gangster Squad will not be joining the list of classic Warner Brothers’ gangster films.
Gangster Squad has been getting a tough rap from critics – an unfairly tough rap in my opinion – primarily for two reasons; its lack of originality and shoddy writing.
First, the writing. The screenplay is indeed pretty terrible. Based on Paul Lieberman’s book of the same title, Gangster Squad is the first feature film for screenwriter Will Beall, a former LAPD officer whose only previous writing credits were a handful of episodes of Castle, and it does sound a bit like a first time screenwriter. The film is overly reliant on clichéd dialogue and scenes (there is actually a scene where a pensive police officer throws his badge into the ocean). The substandard writing is a shame because it means that the film doesn’t get to take full advantage of the quite stellar cast that they’ve managed to assemble. The actors all seem to be trying their hearts out but the chemistry isn’t quite there on the screen because it obviously wasn’t there on the page.
The primary cause for accusations of unoriginality is that Gangster Squad plays exactly like The Untouchables. If you are in any way familiar with De Palma’s film you can’t help but seeing the parallels as the movie goes along. Both movies have a city at the mercy of a corrupt gangster. In both cases that gangster is played by a big name, respected actor – Robert DeNiro as Capone and Sean Penn as Cohen. Both movies involve an honourable, Irish detective putting together a special squad to take down that gangster. In both cases that squad ends up being a bit of a motley crew. The parallels continue, but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory. When the parallels are so constant, you can’t help but compare the two and, unfortunately for Gangster Squad, The Untouchables is a great movie, well written and performed, and as such Fleischer’s film suffers by comparison.
Visually, Fleischer and Aussie cinematographer Dion Beebe (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) have given us a stylised version of the classic gangster aesthetic. You still have all the iconography you expect, and that beautiful Art Deco vibe that drops you straight into the era, but through the combination of some interesting camera angles, a colour palate that is dominated by blues, and some digital alteration, you end up with something that looks a bit like a cross between a classic gangster film and The Watchmen. I’m not really sure if I liked it or just noticed it, but it is distinctive.
As I said before though, I think the harshness with which some critics have met this film has been a bit excessive. Gangster Squad is pure escapism and suffers in the eyes of some because so many great gangster films before it have aspired to more than just escapism. But there has always been a place for escapism at the movies. It is not a hugely original story, but the foundation of the genre system is the joy of familiarity. If you are a lover of gangster movies, as I am, there is an enjoyment that comes from revisiting a traditional gangster premise and seeing today’s stars playing roles straight out of old Hollywood. You don’t always need to be rewriting the rules and breaking new ground. Gangster Squad is not going to rock your world, but it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean