There’s probably a good movie buried somewhere in GANGSTER SQUAD, Ruben Fleischer’s crime thriller based on the true story of a group of vigilante cops who are assembled to take down the ruthless leader of a burgeoning west coast syndicate. Set in 1949 Los Angeles, the film features top-notch, stylized production design and a checklist of great actors wielding tommy guns while wearing snazzy suits. Unfortunately, the aesthetic value of the film is constantly undermined by shoddy writing and a maddening contradiction of style and tone.
To that point, perhaps the best thing to come out of the film is that it makes me want to watch both DICK TRACY and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL again as soon as possible -- because those were clearly the two movies that Fleischer (of ZOMBIELAND fame) and writer Will Beall wanted to make. But, it seems, they couldn’t choose between the two and just decided to mash them together and see what happens. The result is a movie that is occasionally campy, occasionally dramatic, mostly uninspired and never engaging.
To their credit, the cast seems to be having fun. Sean Penn, in particular, relishes in his role as mobster and former boxer Mickey Cohen, grumbling and cursing and punching and literally ripping people in half as he makes his way to the top of the L.A. crime scene. The good guys, led by Josh Brolin and including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick, spout empty dialogue about waging war in a post-WWII society, but generally speaking, character development is non-existent (though Patrick’s old sharpshooting cowboy is fun, if oddly out of place). The film does take full advantage of its R-rating, with almost constant gunfire, brutal beatings and plenty of blood splatter -- but with so little substance behind it, the violence quickly grows tiresome.
But perhaps most egregiously, GANGSTER SQUAD wastes its most valuable asset: The smoldering on-screen chemistry between Gosling and Emma Stone. The two of them melted hearts (and celluloid) with their adorable, steamy romance in 2011’s CRAZY STUPID LOVE, and previews implied that they would do it again here. Sadly, their screen time together is limited and spoiled by stilted dialogue; Stone, in particular, looks amazing but is never given a chance to show off her quick wit. That said, under the right circumstances, Gosling + Stone is a pairing that makes me feel kinda funny (like when we used to climb the rope in gym class) -- give these kids a sexy, well-written romantic comedy, stat, and let us sit back and enjoy.
In the end, GANGSTER SQUAD is a forgettable mess and the very definition of a wasted opportunity. Stronger writing and more confident direction could have made this a summer hit -- instead, it’s easy to see why it has been relegated to the early January movie wasteland.