by Padraic Coffey
We may be less than a fortnight into the new year, but you will be hard pressed to find a more cliché-ridden film come the close of 2013 than Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad. This briskly-paced, visually-kinetic picture leaves no cinematic trope untouched in its depiction of cops and criminals in post-World War II Los Angeles. It’s all here; the unorthodox policeman, lumbered with a conspicuously Irish surname (in this case, O’Mara); his angst-filled wife, desperate for her husband to pursue a safer line of work; the hot-headed up-and-comer who plays with fire by bedding a mobster’s dame; the grizzled old-timer who proves a dab-hand with his weapon of choice; ethnic minorities who face discrimination before turning the tables on their bigoted oppressors. For a film into which Warner Bros. have allegedly pumped $75 million (a figure inflated by the tragic shooting-spree in Colorado last year, which forced Fleischer to film new scenes and delayed the release by several months), nary a risk is taken with Gangster Squad. It has scarcely an original thought in its head.
None of which is to suggest that this is a bad film; it is, indeed, a highly enjoyable evening at the movies. However, given the first-rate cast assembled and the milieu, harnessed so beautifully in Curtis Hanson’ L.A. Confidential, one could be forgiven for holding higher expectations. From the opening scene, in which Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) thrashes a punching-bag in ultra-slo-mo, we are in for what might best be described as Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables meets Zack Synder’s 300. Josh Brolin is LAPD Sergeant John O’Mara, the World War II vet whose single-handed shutting down of one of Mickey Cohen’s brothels earns him the attention of Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte). Parker assigns O’Mara the task of assembling a crew to conduct off the book surveillance and roughhouse tactics on Cohen’s various rackets.
For this ‘gangster squad’, O’Mara gathers Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) – himself at risk through a dalliance with Cohen’s moll Grace (Emma Stone) – urban beat cop Rocky Washington (Anthony Mackie), bugging-expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), quick-drawing Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his Hispanic protégé Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña). Plot matters little from hereon in; it’s all about set-pieces. Which Fleischer, it must be said, delivers with aplomb, whether it’s a car-chase where grenades are liberally exchanged between vehicles, or the final showdown between Cohen and O’Mara, surely the first instance ‘bullet-time’ has captured an operational Tommy Gun. The film has the look of a comic-book brought to life. Sadly, it also has the sound of one. We sense as much early when Brolin’s Noir-tinged voiceover dusts off the old maxim of evil triumphing when “good men do nothing”. Hard-boiled slang of old is sometimes employed – O’Mara’s wife Connie (Mireille Enos) implores him not to “take a belly-flop on grenade” – but for the most part the dialogue is disappointingly ordinary.
That said, the cast all appear to be enjoying themselves. Sean Penn’s vicious Cohen is his hammiest performance in years. Gosling, reuniting with Stone after 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love, has a lightness of touch which relieves nicely from Brolin’s square-jawed hero. Nick Nolte’s cameo calls to mind his role in Mulholland Falls, which tackled a similar theme in a much more serious fashion. Whatever can be said of Gangster Squad, it is not a film to be taken seriously. Despite some surprisingly gory moments, it pulls its punches on several occasions. One scene, involving a blood-trail leading to a bathtub, is so pandering it could almost inspire guffaws. And as the credits roll, you may ponder one unfathomable question – after Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Keanu Reeves in Point Break and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises, why do big-screen cops constantly retire by throwing their badge into the sea?