‘Not violent enough’ is a criticism I am hardly accustomed to leveling at films, but the sentiment applies, oddly enough, to Ruben Fleisher’s Gangster Squad, a stylized, comedic, exploitation-esque crime flick with too little style, too many underwhelming jokes, and not nearly enough bloodshed.
Does this sound like a strange and tasteless thing to say? Probably, but consider the story at hand: Set in post-World-War-II Los Angeles, the film chronicles a group of LAPD officers who have been given special permission to throw their badges away and attack the city’s organized crime – led by wicked gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) – by any means, and with whatever force, necessary. It is an inherently pulpy and exploitative premise (and a largely fictional one, regardless of the “Inspired by a True Story” nonsense that opens the film), one that mines its appeal from the potential for goofy, dirty, blood-soaked mayhem and madness.
One could, conceivably, do the down-to-earth ‘gritty’ version of this story, but the moral and psychological torment on display would make for a largely humorless affair, and Fleisher has wisely chosen to go in the other direction. Gangster Squad is a heightened and witty black comedy that aims to have fun, and while I admire its obvious ambition and sporadic audacity, the film is ultimately too timid to make much of an impact.
Violence is only one notable area where the film holds back. If, for instance, Quentin Tarantino felt obliged to tackle this story, every shootout would contain geysers of blood and ludicrous eruptions of gore, and his instinct would be correct. Not only is in-your-face carnage a staple of the genre films Gangster Squad idolizes, but the hyper-stylized tone and morality-free premise practically calls for visceral, violent indulgence. If the story stems from the idea that the mobsters have become such a virulent, omnipresent social problem that the only way to fight back is with superior firepower, it only makes sense for the film to deliver satisfaction by way of savagery.
Yet apart from the opening scenes, which are amusingly, if not inventively, over-the-top, Gangster Squad is remarkably timid in its depiction of gunplay and brutality. Plenty of bullets are fired, but scenes are sloppily edited to show little more than this, the film clumsily dancing around the point of its main characters’ actions – let alone anything more heightened than that – and rendering the shoot-outs and set-pieces lifeless, generic, and mostly unimpressive.
I am not bloodthirsty, nor do I require excessive numbers of gory standoffs to enjoy an action movie, but Gangster Squad quickly establishes itself as the kind of exaggerated, goofy crime flick that would benefit from a healthy amount of graphic violence, and the film’s failure to stand out in this regard is a clear and distracting shortcoming, one indicative of larger creative issues.
It is too bad, for before the film becomes narratively and stylistically nondescript, Gangster Squad actually opens with an encouraging sense of life and vitality, of truly original style and an expertly calibrated sense of pulp storytelling. Yet as the pieces begin to fall into the place, and the narrative’s countless derivative elements gradually come into focus, Gangster Squad struggles to stay fun, even though it never quite stops being generally entertaining.
The cast – featuring enjoyable, committed work from Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Emma Stone, and especially Sean Penn – is too good to let that happen, and even if every single plot point is cribbed from dozens of other movies and TV shows, Will Beall’s writing provides a largely solid foundation. Beall has a good ear for earnest, pulpy dialogue, and a sharp sense of characterization, if not character arc. Given how quickly many of the central figures revert to simple archetypes to take part in predictable and uninvolving story points, Beall certainly has plenty of room to improve. Yet for the writer’s first feature script, this is a promising effort, and given the areas in which the script excels, I understand why Warner has reportedly tapped Beall to write their upcoming Justice League film.
It is Fleischer’s direction that most obviously drops the ball on Gangster Squad, and I hate to say that given just how much I love Zombieland, the filmmaker’s debut feature. That film had such a clear, fresh sense of style and identity, whereas Gangster Squad struggles from start to finish to create or maintain a well-defined vision or tone. I led with the issue of violence, as it is the film’s most perplexing gap, but Dion Beebe’s lazy, uninvolving cinematography is equally frustrating, and the production design is a mess. Long shots of LA artistically romanticize a version of the city that never existed, and an elaborate nightclub set makes no claim to reality, but the stylized design is hardly uniform. Other locations, like police headquarters or Josh Brolin’s character’s home, try to evoke period accuracy, while the amount of CGI used to spruce up the visuals waxes and wanes from scene to scene, altering the color scheme along with it. On the whole, the film looks cheap, and judging just from the finished project, I cannot fathom how a reported production budget of $75 million was spent making the movie.
I do not wish to sound too negative. Gangster Squad is never bad, and only rarely is it uninvolving, but the slight entertainment it provides comes coupled with a fair amount of tedium. I believe the film aspires to offer the crime genre something new and different, but the final product is generally unremarkable, and with so many tremendous films from the final weeks of 2012 still playing in theatres, I see no reason to make Gangster Squad a priority.