"Don't shoot where it is, son; Shoot where it's gonna be."
One of the most absurd, ridiculous, preposterous movies made in the last several years, Gangster Squad is the kind of film that loves to think it's a fun & original homage to film noir, but in actuality, it's so blinded by its own stupidity, it can't even tell a coherent story. Director Ruben Fleischer grabbed everyone's attention with his 2009 debut feature Zombieland. In my review of his second film, 30 Minutes or Less, I chalked that film's failure to connect as a film to the typical sophomore slump that hits virtually every filmmaker. Little did I realize, it was nothing more than a sign of things to come... infinitely worse things.
Gangster Squad borrows so liberally from other, better films, it has no identity of its own. It never met a cliche it didn't like, and if it had just a tad more of a sense of humor about itself, you could replace the word Squad in the title with the word Movie, and it could almost pass as a genre parody. Featuring far better talent than befits such a piece of dreck, Gangster Squad stars Josh Brolin as John O'Mara, a sergeant with the LAPD in 1949, who is shown early on playing by his own rules. One might go so far as to call him a loose cannon if one were so inclined. O'Mara is charged by Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, gravelly as ever) to form a squad, as it were, that will go after Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a crime lord whose ruthless tactics have all but ensured that he rules the entire Los Angeles crime world.
Joining O'Mara on his squad are salty old sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), smart guy Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), black guy Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), hispanic guy Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) and slightly looser cannon Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who has found himself smitten with Cohen's moll du jour, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Getting back to Navidad Ramirez & Coleman Harris for a second, I identified them by their race rather than any character traits because that's all the film expects of them. They are given no identity by the filmmakers outside of being a blind stab at diversifying their demographics. And seriously, Navidad Ramirez? Why don't you just call him Pancho Villa?
The biggest mistake made by Fleischer and his screenwriter Will Beall, is treating the audience with utter contempt. I dealt with the issue of paying homage versus wholesale rip-off in my review of Star Trek: Into Darkness, but this is another film that I honestly don't think was smart enough to nod at film noir genre conventions, and thought that just ripping them off in the hopes that no one would notice would be enough. Everything from the doomed shoeshine kid, to the harebrained attempts at writing hard boiled noir dialogue fall flat. Add to that the fact that the film revels in 21st century cgi blood & guts effects, and the film is a mess from start to finish.
Anyone who genuinely enjoys film noir will roll their eyes in disgust at this film's boneheadedness, so they can't possibly be trying to appeal to that segment of the audience. You need look no further than the use of Jay-Z's "Oh My God" in the film's theatrical trailer to see at whom they were marketing this film, and the fact that they knowingly marketed this to young people and minorities is disgusting to me. It's a blatant statement by the studio that they knew it wouldn't fly in middle America, so they made a bald faced attempt to change their marketing strategy and hope that people would be dumb enough to spend their money on this piece of trash. It's shameful.
Now, let's talk about the cast. Sean Penn throws any and all respectability he has into the wind with his performance here. Caked in ridiculous makeup, Penn flails and flounders in one of the most absurd displays of overacting ever committed to film. Brolin's a decent actor, but he's never looked more bored or disconnected to a character before. He seems like the only one that can smell the steaming pile this movie would turn out to be. Gosling is his usual comatose-self here, mistaking being stoic for being tough. Late in the film when he starts pistol whipping dudes, screaming, and dumping acid on them, it's too little, too late to salvage whatever was left of his somnambulant performance.
Nick Nolte is in far too little of the film to be interesting or effective. I thought that maybe when he showed up to the premiere of the film in his bathrobe that this was a sign that he was equally crazy in the film, but no, he's just gone off the rails in real life. Giovanni Ribisi is fine as the doomed-from-the-start Keeler, but he seems to have played a variant on this role at least a dozen times by now (most notably in The Other Sister). As for the rest of the cast, Stone, Pena, Mackie & even Patrick do so little that they barely register. The film is full of some great, film noir looking character actors in minor roles, but none of them do anything.
When we look back on Ruben Fleischer's career, I imagine we'll think fondly of "what could have been" after a fantastic start. Now, he's just the guy who makes shitty, second-rate genre movies, notorious only for the controversy surrounding their production and/or release. The less said about Gangster Squad in those conversations, the better, because it deserves the quick burial it received upon its release back in January. It's an embarrassment to everyone involved, and the sooner we all forget it even exists, the better off we'll all be.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]