Review: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad

I love gangster films, especially those that center in the popular 1940's Los Angeles time period. At first glance you might think Gangster Squad would fall into this genre as well, but I would argue that it plays more like a straight action flick with all of the explosions and stylized violence viewers come to expect from contemporary movies. Much like many modern-day action films, Gangster Squad is enjoyable but ultimately forgettable due to its reliance on typical action tropes and unmemorable characters. The plot centers on hard-nosed, honest LA detective John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and his refusal to allow the growing mob presence in Los Angeles to erode his town. O'Mara forms an off-the-books squad of like-minded cops to destroy the growing empire of mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) by any means necessary. What follows is a load of slam-bang action perpetrated by O'Mara and his band of officers, among them Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who finds himself fighting not only to destroy Cohen but to protect his love interest Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) who also happens to be Cohen's girlfriend.

While I was expecting a lot of violence going into Gangster Squad, I was also thinking there would be an engaging plot to go along with it. Instead, the plot that is there exists simply to move the film along to the next action sequence. I would have expected great actors like Penn and Brolin to really draw me into the film, but both are simply adequate here; Penn in particular is rather uninspiring in what was a role written for a screen-commanding actor. This isn't to say there aren't bright spots. Emma Stone is excellent as the "damsel in distress," and Mireille Enos as O'Mara's wife Connie gives a strong performance, with both acting as the mechanism to keep the viewer's feet morally grounded in a film that occasionally borders on the cartoonish. Giovanni Ribisi also turns in a noteworthy character role performance.

Gangster Squad makes up for its lack of substance with a lot of style. I've never seen any of director Ruben Fleischer's other films, but here he litters scenes with slow-motion action sequences and explosions galore. Lots of close-up shots mixed into the gunfights make the action more spectacle than visceral. All in all, I felt the same watching Gangster Squad as I might while taking in a movie like Live Free or Die Hard: entertained, but never fully engaged. This isn't a bad thing per se and movies like this are always a fun watch, but I would have expected more from a movie brimming with star power. Gangster Squad will entertain for an evening, but you walk away feeling like it should have given you a little more.

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