I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of mob movies. Scorsese movies in particular, but really, pretty much anything where organized criminals shoot each other in the face. But even with an exceptionally wide tolerance for error when it comes to movies about mobsters, I wasn't sure I wanted to see Gangster Squad. Mostly because it was called Gangster Squad.
Would you be as excited to see Jurassic Park if it were called Dinosaur Island? How much anticipation could you have mustered for Star Wars if it had been called Space Battles? If The Godfather had been Mob Boss, would it have been as well received? Those are all rhetorical - no need to come up with an answer in your head. The point is, the movie needed a better name. It sounded cheesy.
We watched it anyway, despite the silly title. I watched it because A) it had gangsters and tommy guns, and B) it had Emma Stone, and she makes my pants fit tighter. I wasn't expecting it to be great, and it delivered pretty much exactly what I expected, except it surprised me because I ended up enjoying it despite its ridiculous parts. Though I think I liked it because it had gangsters and Emma Stone, not because it was a good movie.
Gangster Squad takes place in Los Angeles in the late 40s, during the same time period as that boring LA Noir cop game. A shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later cop forms his own squad of undercover cops to take down Mickey Cohen, the mobster running most of the Los Angeles crime racket. This loose cannon copper gets a bunch of sidekicks, like the cowboy gunslinger who never misses and the playboy kid and the smart guy who is good at fixing things. It's like a pitch for a comic-book movie:
"A hard-boiled cop. A gunslinger. An angry young man. Together, they are the Gangster Squad. They fight crime."
Come to think of it, this movie could have been a comic book, but only if it were published by Marvel, and probably only in that era when Batman got all dark and everybody started reading Punisher. It's a ham-fisted, over-the-top story full of big action scenes and characters who can be summed up in a sentence. There are car chases and gun fights, fisticuffs and jail breaks. It's riddled with more cliches than there are bullet holes in the side of a rum runner's Packard.
If you're trying to decide if you might like Gangster Squad, ask yourself if you liked The Untouchables. This movie wanted to be that movie, with lots of big-name stars, occasionally cheesy dialog, and deaths meant to make the viewer upset. However, unlike that classic, Gangster Squad left me completely uncaring when people died, not particularly invested in the defeat of the villainous mobster, and definitely not quoting any cool lines. Remember this exchange?
'You got 'im?'
'I got 'im.'
'He's in the car.'
Well, if you do, hang onto that, because you're not going to find anything that memorable in Gangster Squad.
But maybe the creators of the movie didn't want you to remember it. At least, they didn't want you to remember it long enough to check up on Wikipedia, because there's virtually no historical accuracy to be had. I was wondering if they were going to pull a Tarantino and kill Mickey Cohen, because they were so far off actual events that they could have gone any direction they wanted.
So it sounds like I didn't like Gangster Squad, but I really did. The writing may have been poor, but the acting was actually pretty good. Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Giovanni Ribisi, and Ryan Gosling are pretty big hitters, and they can do a lot with a crappy script. Plus it had Emma Stone, who could lisp her way through a Sunday-morning Bible reading and still give me a stiffy. The production was excellent - gun battles were thrilling, car chases were exciting, fisticuffs were brutal, and jail breaks were intense. Costumes were immaculate and sets were great. If there had been compelling dialog and a clever story, this would have been an incredible movie.
Instead it was just a really fun gangster movie that you only need to watch once (unless you're developing a thoroughly inappropriate fascination for Emma Stone). It wasn't smart or tightly scripted. It wasn't restrained or introspective. It was just a high-octane go-cart race of a gangster movie, and if you can just strap in and hang on and not look for the serious parts, you might enjoy Gangster Squad, stupid title and all.
All flash with zero substance, and a sometimes jarringly uneven flash at that. Shame, too. I was looking forward to this one for a long time. Good review Matt.
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