With Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, Gangster Squad was a must-see. I figured that it was a January movie that might actually pan out to be better than the post-Christmas/pre-May stint. But given that Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, and Mireille Enos (The Killing) are also along for the ride about dangerous lawmen during Prohibition, I thought this period piece might actually rock.
But Gangster Squad never gets us to believe. Sure, Brolin’s Purple-Hearted Sergeant O’Mara wants to keep Los Angeles clean from Penn’s sadistic savage Mickey Cohen, even while his wife (Enos) is begging him to make more cautious decisions. We’re supposed to understand that the pure-hearted veteran can’t sit by and watch his city torn apart, but we’re also aware that there’s something more dangerous in his intentions: he’s dealing with PTSD and realizing that he can’t settle down like he should with his wife and child.
Others fill out their sizable cut-outs: Gosling is the devil-may-care who doesn’t see the world getting any better and thinks his sergeant should leave Cohen alone; Ribisi is the geeky sacrificial lamb who is the inspirational lynchpin; Mackie and Pena are the token minorities; Patrick is the old timer sure shot, who looks like he stepped off the set of Tombstone and forgot to change outfits.
But while on one level we know that we should root for the good cops, the sad truth is that Cohen is a much more compelling character. We just don’t quite get to the point where Brolin and Gosling make us care, even when the good guys experience tragedy and loss. Is it the material, the acting, or the complete package?
It’s not the material, and the acting, well, it’s okay for January. But watching Gangster Squad sent me back to two excellent cop/gangster movies, and no, I don’t mean Denzel Washington’s American Gangster. Re-watching The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential, I was struck by the way that we’re forced to care about Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and Guy Pearce’s Ed, one historical and one imagined. Given the nominations and wins the two gangster films racked up, it’s obvious they were good, but their sustained emotional power shows off something that Gangster Squad aimed for and just couldn’t ever establish.
Maybe it’s the fact that these latest crimefighters don’t seem to win by doing anything different than the enemies they face; maybe it’s the level of acting mixed with dialogue that seems forced, like by wearing a fedora it transforms a modern-day actor into a baaaaaaad man. Whatever it is, you’d be better served by dialing up one of those older films, and watching a real story unfold, translated to your modern eyes by some real acting masters.