There were two clear paths to success for “Gangster Squad.” The first would be to follow the “L.A. Confidential” pattern and take a hardboiled approach to period criminality. Writer Will Beale crafts his screenplay with various neo-noir elements: the post-war moodiness and shadiness, a little bit of moral ambiguity, and of course, the femme fatale (Emma Stone’s red-haired dynamo Grace Faraday).
The second, and perhaps more reasonable, template would have been Brian DePalma’s 1987 “The Untouchables,” a movie that shares quite a few similarities with Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad.” There’s the borderline insane crime lord of a major city who just happens to be played by a two-time Oscar winner (Sean Penn now, Robert DeNiro then). Because of that de facto tyrant’s chokehold on that city, a team of top law enforcement officials is tasked with bringing him to his knees.
The only difference is Eliot Ness and the Untouchables stayed within the boundaries of the law. Josh Brolin’s John O’Mara, Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters, and the rest of the titular merry band of extralegal avengers have no such regard for the rules. They go outside the law to stop a man who is above the law. But in such a drastically different detail, little new conclusions are ultimately reached.
Fleischer and Beale provide no unique or fresh take on the wildly exciting possibilities that such genre classics as “The Untouchables” and “L.A. Confidential” uncovered. Perhaps it looks a little shinier since Fleischer will occasionally plop in an slick effects shot reminiscent of Zack Snyder that feels inconsistent with the look of the film. Factor in some characters molded after noir archetypes, and you’ve got a movie as deafeningly stylistically dissonant as Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” series.
The movie makes a ploy for contemporary relevance by attempting to relate the activities of the Gangster Squad to George W. Bush’s America taking various measures of questionable morality to capture a dangerous enemy. But the scene in which such a connection is meant to click feels out of place, as if it were written for an entirely different movie. And after Nolan raised the bar sky-high in “The Dark Knight” with discussion of modern vigilantism, anything this lightweight is going to feel like a juvenile faux pas. Not to mention, the movie sends completely mixed messages between its decrying of using questionable means to achieve a desired end … and then literally ending with a glorification of police brutality.
After all, why arrest a villain when you can beat him to a pulp? That’s more fun and cinematic! “Gangster Squad” provides ammunition to those who want to believe all the carnage and murder in movies is causing such tragedies in Newtown and Aurora with its “do as I say, not as I do” attitude towards violence. I don’t think the filmmakers were purposefully or maliciously espousing the use of such actions; their movie is just trying to provide what this genre has always provided: a cathartic triumph of good over evil, with enough blood to give the battle meaning beyond an abstract battle of two forces.
Although there’s very little catharsis when “Gangster Squad” comes to a close and Micky Cohen unsurprisingly gets his just reward. Perhaps it’s because the journey is largely dull and lifeless. Or maybe its because the movie’s menace feels distinctly unmenacing and more laughable, like Nick Nolte (who happens to also be in the film) mixed his Xanax with hard liquor. C+ /