The first film in history to keep theaters open at night was Underworld, the story of a gangster, his lawyer and his lawyer’s wife. Many considered it simplistic, but it was the first in a long line of gangster-driven plots, movies produced by Hollywood that gave audiences glamour, gore and loose morals: Everything the audiences craved. Hollywood gangsters have become sexy and the gangster movie has grown bigger and crazier with each passing year. The newest film to join this lineup is Gangster Squad, based on the book by Paul Lieberman and adapted for the screen by Will Beall.
Based on true events, Gangster Squad, directed by Ruben Fleischer, follows the story of Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and his team of off-beat cops who collectively try to bring down L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Cohen runs Los Angeles at the start of the film, and has plans to expand all across the West Coast, which he plans to rip apart and keep in his control. Commissioned by his chief of police due to his unflinching drive to clean up L.A., Sgt. O’Mara recieves the orders to take down Cohen outside of the law. With the help of his pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos), O’Mara gathers his hand-picked gangster squad: Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), the gun-hand; Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the recruit; Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), the brains of the operation; Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi); and his good friend Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling).
Of course, the part of the story all the audiences were dying for was the romance between Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and Sgt. Jerry Wooters. The incredibly attractive couple starred about a year and a half ago in Crazy, Stupid, Love. After their adorable contribution to that movie, pressure was high for the on-screen couple to contribute greater chemistry in Gangster Squad. Like many recurring onscreen couples, their second performance fell short to their first. Not as far short as in Joe Versus the Volcano or Fool’s Gold way, but closer to Fifty First Dates. They retained decent chemistry but had much less to work with in this film. Grace Faraday was the etiquette teacher and lover of Mickey Cohen who went home with Sgt. Jerry Wooters before the gangster squad was formed or considered. Due to the lies told by both, Grace is unable to fully trust either man: one she cares about and one she is forced to care for. The ending, of course, will surprise no one, but it is pleasant to see the love story progress and the actors maintain their strong on-screen compatibility.
In all of the characters, something is lacking. This isn’t entirely to blame on the actors’ performances. Sure, some of the roles may have been better filled by other actors, but each actor turned in a strong performance and did their best with what they were given by the writers. The problem was, they weren’t given a lot. As a novel, I am sure the story maintains a stronger adherence to the true history and is able to more fully flesh out its characters. However, as a film, the characters all seem one-dimensional and any attempt to make them otherwise seems forced and off-putting. The plot is also, sadly, lacking. The film is repetitive and inaccessible. Gangster Squad runs a little under two hours and yet there are only two scenes that I can recall as being impactful in any way. Not much happened in actuality. Violence and gore are a natural part of any gangster film, especially one where both the cops and the gangsters are working outside the law, but some of the violence seemed superfluous. What felt like 20 minutes of straight machine gun versus machine gun was a little over the top.
On a rather fascinating note, they were forced to re-edit and re-shoot several scenes from the movie due to the recent events in Aurora, Colorado. There was a scene of violence and shooting within a movie theater, but due to the sensitivity regarding this setting for violence, the entire sequence was cut and anything relating to it had to be re-edited. The nature of modern events affecting a historical film is quite profound.
Why this film is worth any attention, however, is due to the decade in which it occurs. The costuming and sets are absolutely beautiful. The 1940’s, according to Gangster Squad, were both classy and sexy, featuring low-lit bars such as Slapsy Maxie’s with a host of singers and well-to-do members of society. Tables were set in public places for gangsters, judges and cops dining and drinking together, displaying their corruption for everyone to see. It was a classier period: not as blunt and cut and dry as our modern age. It makes me sad that we ever moved away from men dressing in suits and hats daily and women sporting sundresses during the day and long slinky numbers for night events. It is no wonder smoking was considered cool at the time: If people of this society had sat around chewing celery, I am sure Americans would all be thin as bean poles in an effort to emulate our sexy, swanky predecessors.
Apart from the incredible attractiveness of the featured couple and the amazing era in which it occurs, Gangster Squad is mediocre at best. While it is interesting in its own way, it seems to teeter between different tones of its genre, trying to emulate them all at once. One moment, it is suave; another it is harsh, brutal and violent. It is fascinating to look at old Chinatown and the L.A. of 70 years ago, but other than that, it achieves very little merit in the long run.
Original Author: Marissa Tranquilli