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“Gangster Squad”: Shooting Blanks?

January 12, 2013

Remember that line from Bull Durham, when veteran catcher Crash Davis said of rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh: “He’s got a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent head”? Gangster Squad‘s got a million-dollar cast and a ten-cent script. Well, it’s more like a $20 million cast, but you get the point.

Nearly every member of the 1949-set L.A. crime drama’s teeming ensemble slips into their roles like a well-tailored suit: square-jawed, gravelly-voiced men’s men like Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte and Robert Patrick as upstanding members of the LAPD; cagey character actors like Jon Polito, Holt McCallany and John Aylward as oily bad guys; Emma Stone, all red lips and big cat eyes as the femme fatale who comes between a burnt out yet morally redeeemable cop (Ryan Gosling, pitching his voice in a high, Jimmy Cagney register) and boxer-turned-mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, channeling Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice from Dick Tracy). A few other cast members are sadly wasted—Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi and Mireille Enos (sporting the least flattering maternity wear ever), but there’s real explosive chemistry between a pair of former costars—Crazy Stupid Love‘s Gosling, again knocking boots, and Stone and Milk‘s Penn and Brolin, again butting heads.

Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) gives the film some visual verve—fight scenes are shot like swing dance sequences—but his attempts to inject humor into the film often feel forced, like when he cuts from a gruesome murder sequence to a shot of raw meat on a barbecue grill. And the screenplay—oh, the screenplay! First-timer Will Beall, whose sole credits are episodes of TV’s soft-boiled mystery Castle, tries his hand at hard-boiled dialogue and just winds up with egg on his face.

Having Mickey Cohen say “You know the drill” before one of his hoods literally takes a power drill to a doomed underling isn’t just anachronistic, given the 1940’s setting—it’s painfully derivative, like some leftover from a Schwarzenegger movie in the ’80s. These characters don’t talk like people from the 1940’s; they talk like a guy who’s spent too much time watching movies from the 1940’s (e.g. “You’re going to wake up on the wrong side of the grass”). Think of this attempt at film noir as L.A. Shoulda-Been-Kept-Confidential.

Did Gangster Squad blow you away—or just blow? Post a comment!

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