If entertaining for the most part — thanks mainly to Sean Penn’s excellent over-the-top performance as notorious gangster Mickey Cohen — Gangster Squad is somewhat of a letdown considering the amount of talent on board. With no historical context and little background on the main antagonist, this film is basically a spectacle of “gangsterism” that relies on self-parody and action set pieces for its entertainment value than it does decent characters.
Inspired by (not based upon) the battle between Cohen and his crew against the LAPD’s ensemble of rogue police officers in the ’40s and ’50s, Gangster Squad features a lot of aggressive shootout scenes and (deliberately?) cartoonish acting. Admittedly, both of these factors add to the entertainment value, but the lack of character development means the film just doesn’t have the intensity to rank it up there with some of the best gangster films.
The “Gangster Squad” attempting to take down Mickey Cohen consists mainly of John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). Nick Nolte plays the police chief, whilst Emma Stone plays Penn’s on-screen girlfriend. These are all very talented people and make the best of a limited script; Gosling probably gets the most screen time, but even his character isn’t fleshed out enough.
I wanted to know more about Penn’s tough-guy character and even Robert Patrick’s experienced gunslinger; there’s also a Mexican guy (Michael Pena) who hardly gets a word in. The main development seems to be the affair between Gosling’s character and Grace Faraday (Stone), which is mostly uninteresting.
With its polished production values, Gangster Squad is nice to look at, with slow-motion particularly put to good use; and there’s a good old-fashioned fist fight between two aging men at the very end (Lethal Weapon homage?) The CG environments also look great, and there is some memorable moments of dialogue that will make you feel like you’re watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger film at times (“Here comes Santy Claus!”)
The film’s attempts to express some kind of morality, though, fail; and reminded me a lot of The Untouchables’ “fight fire with fire” kind of theory. However, Gangster Squad isn’t as sophisticated as Brian De Palma’s classic, and the film would’ve had less of an uneven tone if it had stuck to its “cartoony” route. This film would probably also benefit from a director’s cut, with added character development (if Ruben Fleischer has one up his sleeve for the near future). All in all, it’s not a bad movie, but I definitely expected more.