Packed with an ensemble cast that seems to be having fun and some superbly shot action, Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is the kind of film that will entertain you without ever transcending into being a truly great cinematic experience. Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin lead a cast that makes this slick LA noir film a fun watch, but nothing more.
A film that was heavily delayed because of the Aurora shootings – it underwent considerable reshoot in the wake of the incident – Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad finally hits theatres this week. A pity, since January is usually considered the worst month to release movies the world over. Gangster Squad is the first new film I’ve watched on the big screen in 2013, and though it isn’t a great film by miles, I’d still like to believe that 2013 at the movies is off to a decent, even if a slightly stuttering, start.
Welcome to post-World War II Los Angeles, a place where even shadows ooze glamour; where three-piece suit and Fedora wearing gangsters rule the roost, the law be damned. And East Coast don Mickey Cohen is laying the groundwork for his domination of the ‘Wild West’, ousting the existing crime lords in the city. Enter an upright, tough-as-nails cop John O’Mara, whose only aim is to make LA a safe place to live again, for his child to grow up in. When it looks like Cohen just cannot be stopped, O’Mara is entrusted with the responsibility of forming a small extra-judicial team to take care of matters in whatever way they deem fit.
With a plot like that, supposedly based on a true story, and the kind of cast that this film has, it is hard to not make a film that entertains. Add to that the manner in which the makers manage to get the period feel right - Plymouths, Tommy Guns, glamorous bars with neon lights, the works – and what you end up with is a fun couple of hours at the movies. The action scenes are effortlessly cool; some of the scenes are virtually orgies of booming gunshots. There is even one superbly shot chase sequence involving cars that were not really meant for chase sequences.
The film is helped immensely by the cinematography and VFX. A majority of the film is shot at night, so there is generous play of lights. The manner in which the light supposedly caused by gunshots is used to light scenes and shots is particularly interesting. The use of the background score is excellent as well. The instruments and orchestral feel go well with the period and the tone of the film.
But what truly keeps the film interesting is the cast. Sean Penn steals the show as Mickey Cohen; he injects the character with an electric quality, breathing unapologetic malice and pretending to have a sense of humour even when he does not. Josh Brolin is superb as the honest, posterior-pounding Sgt. John O’Mara. Ryan Gosling, easily one of the most exciting young Hollywood actors at the moment, seems to be having a whole lot of fun as the icy cool cop who falls in love with the most dangerous girl he could find. His body language is what makes him stand out as an actor. Watch as he casually leans against a wall in the midst of a messy fight scene; he keeps reminding you why he is an actor to watch out for. The supporting cast does a great job as well. Robert Patrick and Giovanni Ribisi, who play members of Brolin’s team, are excellent. Emma Stone as Cohen’s moll looks great, but has a small part in what is essentially a film about the men.
As usual, the film’s biggest problem is the heavily flawed writing. The screenplay is riddled with flaws and leaps of faith, too many to count actually. The manner in which Gosling’s character agrees to be a part of the team, the way in which the Gangster Squad gets hold of their information about Cohen, the ridiculously skewed ratio of bullets fired to bullets finding their mark, these and a whole lot more require large doses of what we as the audience have come to dislike - looking the other way. In fact, the writing of the film is what truly pulls it down, ensuring that it never becomes memorable at any stage.
Gangster Squad is a forgettable film, one that you wont be thinking about for too long once it is done. But there is good chance that you’ll have some amount of fun while watching it; it has enough ingredients for that much at least. If, like me, you believe that the only real way to watch a movie is on the big screen, then go for it. There’s a good chance you’ll be entertained during its run time. Otherwise, the film will just as well make for a one-time watch on DVD. Then, I’d strongly recommend those who like this film to go on to catch L.A. Confidential, my personal favourite LA noir film by some distance.
This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at www.youtube.com/cyberpradeep.
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