‘Gangster Squad’ all style, no substance

Article Published: Jan. 17, 2013 | Modified: Jan. 17, 2013
‘Gangster Squad’ all style, no substance

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in 'Gangster Squad.'

Check out the gams on “Gangster Squad,” eh? It’ll have some eager beavers doling out lettuce for ducks like some big cheese at a gin joint. It’s the moon for the box office, see?

But that’s a load of gobbledygook. It’s as if the writers Googled “1940s slang” and cobbled a screenplay together like a post-World War II Mad Lib. Cinematography, set design, atmosphere – they’re hotsy totsy, swanky and swell, and they take the front seat in this celluloid jalopy. The rest is old hat.

Lingo aside, director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) aims high in this violent tale of cops gone rogue to take down an untouchable mob boss, but the results are a surefire miss – all style and no substance.

In the process, “Gangster Squad” squanders a superb and talented cast with two-dimensional, underdeveloped characters. It’s a visual feast, but there’s little going on to engage the audience.
It’s 1949, and Josh Brolin (“No Country for Old Men”) is O’Mara, a tough-as-nails sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department. Fed up with the organized crime that’s eating his city from the inside out, he often takes matters into his own hands, even if it means treading on mob kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, “Milk”).

His superiors, knowing their superiors are in Cohen’s pocket, try to talk him down – all except for police chief Parker (Nick Nolte, “Warrior”), who tells him otherwise. He unofficially orders O’Mara, a World War II veteran, to assemble an off-the-books squad to wage guerilla warfare on Cohen’s outfit, using excessively violent means to ride the mobster out of town.

O’Mara promptly gets to work, recruiting ladies’ man Jerry (Ryan Gosling, “Drive”), electronics expert Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, “Ted”), sharpshooting cowboy cop Kennard (Robert Patrick, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”) and his sidekick, Navidad (Michael Pena, “End of Watch”), and determined beat cop Harris (Anthony Mackie, “The Adjustment Bureau”).

The boys then engage in a bit of the old ultra-violence, hitting Cohen where it hurts – gambling dens, heroin shipments, etc. – and take no prisoners.

The Gangster Squad, as they’re soon called in the papers, catches Cohen’s attention, prompting him to retaliate in similar fashion. But as Nolte’s police chief repeatedly points out, they’re at war, and there will certainly be casualties.

How does this make the Gangster Squad any different from the gangsters? That’s a good question and one that Fleischer and company barely explore and fail to answer.

It could’ve given “Gangster Squad” a deeper, more thoughtful narrative, but, as it stands, the film seems more preoccupied with on-screen violence. It’s an uneven affair, presented stylishly but recklessly, over the top one moment and taking itself way too seriously the next.

Most of the cast members play it straight, but for Gosling, Penn and Patrick, who consciously ham it up and have fun doing so. But apart from shooting things and slinging slang, there’s just not much to do. This is all the more evident with the talented Emma Stone (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) playing Cohen’s moll, seemingly thrown in there for the sake of having a female lead and some semblance of a love story.

Ultimately, “Gangster Squad” tries to be something it isn’t – namely 1987’s “The Untouchables.” The latter effectively cinematized a true story by adding twists and turns that actively engage viewers to this day. “Gangster Squad” has things that go boom.

“Gangster Squad,” rated R for strong violence and language, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.

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