Gangster films set between the 1920s and 1940s are nothing new, but there’s still a desire for the traditional glamour and romanticised violence that they offer. Gangster Squad offers both of these in abundance, but unfortunately suffers from average performances, a shallow story and a severe lack of character development. It does succeed at being an enjoyable action film for the simple reason that it’s not aiming for anything more – the filmmakers clearly know that a movie like this is supposed to be pure escapist entertainment. Regardless, the problems are hard to dismiss.
Gangster Squad follows a team of vigilante police officers, led by Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling, attempting to take down Sean Penn’s notorious Los Angeles crime lord Mickey Cohen. The film takes more than a few liberties with regards to historical events, and there isn’t a lot of exposition or development; the story remains very simple throughout. For the most part, it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill gangster film, a distant cousin of Lawless and Public Enemies. The dialogue is decent if not outstanding, and occasionally funny, but very rarely laugh-out-loud. The plot is clichéd and superficial. It’s not particularly thought-provoking and what you see is pretty much what you get.
The acting, on the whole, is average. Josh Brolin isn’t bad, but he’s clearly mastered the skill of putting on a blank, inexpressive face. The rest of the cast are not in the film anywhere near long enough to show their ability or make an impression on the audience, but Ryan Gosling gives a very charismatic performance and handles the serious scenes well. It was also great to see Emma Stone play an adult character after having so many teenage roles. She is suitably seductive, but could have benefited from more than just being the damsel-in-distress. Sean Penn is violent, threatening and growls, but unfortunately his character is also completely one-dimensional. This is a problem with virtually all of the characters; their backstories, personalities and motivations are not developed enough, and only Gosling and Brolin have any kind of arc throughout the film.
Gangster Squad makes up for the writing problems with great directing and editing. The visual style is possibly the best part of the film. The colours are bright, the blacks are stark and each shot looks very sleek and stylish, with an almost glossy effect that really sells the 1940s setting. There was also some tasteful use of slow-motion that worked really well. The action scenes were exciting, hard-hitting and dynamic – similar to the way Christopher Nolan handles action. In many ways, it didn’t feel like a period film. It was very modern in how it handled the cinematography and action, and the juxtaposition between the old and the new made it feel fresh.
However, no amount of gorgeous cinematography and directorial prowess can hide the fact that Gangster Squad’s script is woefully inadequate. It feels very rushed and the audience just doesn’t care about what happens to any of the characters. It’s a real shame, because with a little more depth and substance Gangster Squad could have turned out to be the next Heat, instead of a 1940s take on The Expendables.
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