When I first saw the trailers for Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, back in the early spring or summer, I figured it just had to be an Oscar player. After all, how can you assemble a cast of this film’s caliber without at least earning a little bit of prestige attention? Just look at what we have here: two-time Academy Award winner, Sean Penn, as the scenery-chewing mob boss; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, two of today’s brightest young stars, as star-crossed lovers out for vengeance against him; the always excellent Josh Brolin in the lead, heading up a squad of renegade cops going to war with the L.A. mafia. And that’s not to mention the explosive supporting cast, filled out by Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Pena. Add a slick and evocative Los Angeles backdrop, radiant, late-forties period production and a few stirring shoot-out sequences, and Gangster Squad should have been a classic in the making, a film that would keep audiences on the edge of their seats at the same time as it swept a slew of awards off the table.
Well, none of that really worked out, did it? Relegated to the dead zone of January and plagued consistently for months, first by controversy (the original cut featured a shoot-out scene in a movie theater—something audiences couldn’t abide after this past summer’s Aurora tragedy) and then by mediocre reviews, it seemed like Gangster Squad was gearing up to become one of the biggest failures of the year. And on some level, it is a failure, since any project with such a vast array of talent on board has no right to be anything less than stellar. But for all intents and purposes, Gangster Squad is an enjoyable and well-crafted thrill-ride that makes good on its mob cliches and delivers solid entertainment—especially for a January release.
Are there flaws here? Sure, the biggest being that the film, despite its real-life roots, rarely feels like much more than a gleeful collage of earlier (and better) gangster movies. Echoes of the genre radiate through nearly every scene, from The Godfather to Scarface to The Untouchables and especially to L.A. Confidential. Blame for the film’s derivative trappings fall almost entirely to Will Beall, the film’s first-time screenwriter, who clearly hasn’t learned how to hide his influences just yet. Still, the film’s refusal to tread new territory is rendered more disappointing by the presence of Fleischer. The director, a relative newcomer, made a big splash back in 2009 when his debut feature, Zombieland, so perfectly parodied, refreshed, and innovated upon the post-apocalyptic disaster genre. Some of that same originality could have greatly benefited the material here.
Luckily for Fleischer and Beall, the shortcomings of the script don’t really matter, since watching this cast would be a joy with even the most blatant of cinematic re-treads. On one level, the cast and their wide-ranging acting talents are wasted by the screenplay, which doesn’t ask any of them to dig down into the emotional fissures forming within their characters. But the refreshing thing about Gangster Squad is that, despite shallow characterizations and stock situations, none of these actors phone it in with their performances. Instead, we get to watch some of Hollywood’s most renowned heavyweights turn the film into their own personal playground, and that fact alone makes Gangster Squad worth the ride. Penn snarls, spits and shoots with campy reverence; Gosling and Stone, so brilliant together in last year’s Crazy, Stupid, Love., gladly rekindle their crackling chemistry; Patrick transforms his sharp-shooting cowboy into a scene-stealing delight; and Brolin is the solemn anchor, a familiar film-noir type hero who we are happy to root for. Sure, all of these people have given much greater performances in the past, but it’s not at all hard to see why any of them signed on to play these roles.
None of that is to say that Gangster Squad is ever going to become an essential film in the gangster movie canon. From the Godfather trilogy to modern classics like City of God, from the filmography of Martin Scorsese to underrated gems like Road to Perdition and Miller’s Crossing, the genre is littered with great films, and Gangster Squad is not one of them. With that said, though, there’s still a lot to enjoy here, from the all-star cast to the explosive and escapist shoot-em-up aesthetic. Some may wish that Fleischer and Beall had used the story’s ambiguous moral code as a lens for examining the costs of violence, the importance of personal protection or the implication of every bullet that leaves the chamber—especially as the gun control issue looms to new heights. Instead, Gangster Squad is merely a flash-bang blockbuster, a stylized throwback picture free of political agenda or affiliation, and while that may make the film disposable or superfluous, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a pretty damn fun way to spend two hours.