Film review: ‘Gangster Squad’

Carljoe Javier
This new gangster movie is predictable yet entertaining

SPARKS FLY. Emma Stone as Grace Faraday and Ryan Gosling as Sgt Jerry Wooters. All movie stills from Warner Bros Pictures

MANILA, Philippines – Stylish new film “Gangster Squad” has a lot of elements that I am pre-disposed to like: Tommy guns, shootouts, mobsters, old Los Angeles, a crew of men working outside the law to serve it, Emma Stone.

As such, it has an ace up its sleeve against a reviewer like me. Still, it’s more than easy to find the weaknesses in the film. It is, in all honesty, a weak film which does not live up to its great cast. And yet I had fun and did not regret my couple of hours in the theater with it. 

What “Gangster Squad” has going for it is its cast. Ryan Gosling is a definite draw, this generation’s Steve McQueen perhaps, always conveying a sense of danger and mischief. He forms one side of the formidable romantic triangle of the film. Playing opposite Gosling is Emma Stone, who herself is a draw, matching his charm. And she finds herself between Gosling’s cop and Sean Penn’s gangster, Mickey Cohen.

Penn plays Cohen with his usual intensity, going over the top. Then you’ve got the head of the titular squad, Josh Brolin. Brolin’s O’Mara is a fun character because he is pure goodwill and intent, without much thought or planning. 

Watch this interview by The Guardian with Gosling, Stone, and Brolin:

I found that one of the interesting things about the film was that the characters weren’t terribly intelligent. The most savvy and smart falter because they are involved with people who aren’t exactly top of their class. O’Mara’s rushing headlong into things, and it makes for comedy rather than bad-assery.

Then again, one of the things that we do fail to remember is that none of these cops or gangsters were intellectuals — they were men on the street, working their beats and living off of a different kind of intelligence. 

If there’s one idea that this film makes effectively and pointedly, it’s that this generation of men coming from WWII were trained for combat, and were promised loftier things than the lots they usually wound up with. Thus, you have these men who have killer reflexes, who draw on their combat training from the war, and use that to wage war against gangsters.

It probably justifies how they are often outgunned and outmatched, and yet they manage to fend off their enemies. Against them, these street thugs don’t stand a chance.

Sean Penn's version of 'Say hello to my little friend'

That’s a problem, though. Apart from Penn’s Cohen, there isn’t enough power or malice behind the threats of the mob. We get a sense that things are bad, but it seems that his downfall is inevitable. Sure, this is a piece of history and we know that the mob was never able to really dig in and make a foothold in Los Angeles, but the film would have benefitted from letting us feel how high the stakes were.

Instead, the escalations of the film are terribly trite and predictable.

So here are some of the set-ups: Josh Brolin is the strong-willed leader with a wife who’s also with child. We know that their relationship will be imperiled.

Ryan Gosling’s Jerry has been fooling around with Emma Stone’s Grace behind Cohen’s back. We know where that goes. Jerry is also friends with a shoeshine boy who hangs out too frequently in front of the bar that gangsters own, and we know where that goes.

Robert Patrick plays an aging gunslinger, and we know where that will go. Giovanni Ribisi plays a former army intel man who is left in the squad HQ while the rest go out to ride. We know where that goes.

Watch the trailer here:

This is a film where we know every single outcome, we know where everything will end up. 

Why is this a problem? Because there are ways to execute a film whose ending we know while still being compelling and interesting. Witness the airport scene at “Argo,” or all two and a half hours of “Zero Dark Thirty.” 

Within the gangster genre, I inevitably think of “The Untouchables” and “Public Enemies” as possible examples and the directions that this film has taken. I noticed that there were throwback shots that seemed to reference “The Untouchables” in terms of framing and execution.

I think that in concept and spirit, “Gangster Squad” and “The Untouchables” have a lot in common. But this film lacks the gravitas or importance of its predecessor, going for stylized action and violence rather than depth or meaning. I thought of “Public Enemies” because that was a new way to tell the gangster movie. There are no such attempts here.

The Gangster Squad getting ready to roll

I suppose that’s the thing. It is a good bit of Hollywood drivel. It brings up some important concerns like police corruption, due process, duty and honor, and a few other lofty concepts.

After bringing them up though, these ideas are never really engaged as the film falls back on stereotype and cliche. It turns to spectacle and to pacing.

That said, “Gangster Squad’s” pacing is quick and fluid, and it moves quickly, escalating and pushing characters to boiling points and confrontations. These are mostly emotionally empty because there is very little time devoted to developing the characters or their emotions.

But playing on the stereotypes and what we expect of these cliches, we understand who these characters are and what we are supposed to feel for them. The movie’s focus is on action, and cheap thrills. On that level, it delivers.

It’s an entertaining couple of hours. But if you want a gangster movie that will last, you best look elsewhere. –

(Carljoe Javier doesn’t know why people think he’s a snarky film critic who spends his time dashing the hopes of filmgoers. He thinks he’s not all that bad, really. He teaches at the State U, writes books, and studies film, comics, and video games…Then again, those people could be right.)

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