Movie Reviews

'Gangster Squad' (2013) Movie Review

A paint-by-numbers attempt at a gangster film

Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Anthony Mackie in Gangster Squad
Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Anthony Mackie in Gangster Squad
Photo: Warner Bros.

It's too bad Gangster Squad is rated R, because the audience it most deserves won't be able to purchase a ticket. This is Dick Tracy-meets-The Untouchables filled with cartoon caricatures that create a tonal hodgepodge that left me wondering "Is this supposed to be funny?" Then again, funny or not, it certainly isn't any good.

'Gangster Squad'
Grade: D+

Gangster Squad"Gangster Squad" is a Warner Bros. release, directed by and is rated R for strong violence and language. The running time is .

The cast includes , , , , , , , , , , , , and .

For more information on this film including pictures, trailers and a detailed synopsis .

Set in 1949, and inspired by (but not nearly a true story) Paul Lieberman's seven-part, 2008 Los Angeles Times feature "Tales From the Gangster Squad", the film started coming together back in 2011 with an impressive list of names attached.

Sean Penn plays East Coast mob boss Mickey Coen whose about to find his organization under attack by Josh Brolin's all-rules-are-off band of cops. Brolin plays Sgt. John O'Mara and of the others that join him, Ryan Gosling's Jerry Wooters gets the most screen time while Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie and Giovanni Ribisi make up the supporting players.

This self-proclaimed "Gangster Squad" sets out to shut down Mickey and his illegal activities in Los Angeles at the behest of the marble-mouthed Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) and they plan on shooting up as much of the town as necessary to do it.

Looking at the cast it would seem we're off to a decent start. However, there comes a point where the cast doesn't matter once you take a closer look at the screenplay and the man calling the shots.

Director Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland was a straight-up farcical zombie comedy and he followed that up with the disastrous 30 Minutes or Less. Whether you like either of those films or not, I think it's safe to assume neither sets a flattering expectation for Gangster Squad. The story would seem best fit for the likes of Michael Mann (Heat), but Fleischer is so ill-fit for the material there's no reason to expect that kind of film, and the longer you watch you begin to wonder just what kind of film was expected?

Written by first time feature writer Will Beall, you would think the screenplay must have meshed with Fleischer's comedic sensibilities and maybe this could all work. Problem is, Fleischer's sensibilities aren't straight-laced enough for this kind of a project. There isn't a Danny McBride character that farts and says inappropriate things for no reason. There are only a few one-liners. The rest is a glossy, police soap opera with more gunfire than I've seen in a long time, making that well-publicized release date delay due to the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting seem like just a bunch of smoke and mirrors to cover up for a bad movie.

Curiously, Fleischer does show moments of wanting to want to break free of any comedy. He shows some want for experimentation. A few camera movements during a rather generic car chase scene and a tracking shot following Gosling into a club certainly stand out. Then he goes the other direction and plays the cheap, Zack Snyder-slow-motion-action card as bullets rip through candles and casings tinkle to the granite flooring. The result is a film that wants to play to youthful audiences with all the cliche movie trappings it can muster, seemingly made by a guy that respects the classics most adults and film fans fondly remember. These two approaches don't go together.

Admittedly, there is potential inside Gangster Squad and it isn't immediately disagreeable. Gosling's wannabe, high-pitched Humphrey Bogart shtick is initially bothersome, but you grow to like it. Even Penn hamming it up as Cohen isn't all bad. Then, sooner or later you begin to realize you don't know or care anything about these characters.

Mickey's a bad guy because he had that guy ripped in half by two cars. Gosling wants Mickey's girl (Emma Stone) and mourns the shoe shine kid. Brolin has a pregnant wife at home (resulting in one of the stupidest scenes near the end of the film) as does Ribisi with a wife and son. Patrick, Pena and Mackie are essentially cardboard standees. This is the extent of the relationship you have with these characters and any additional nuance is absent otherwise.

Gangster Squad is a paint-by-numbers attempt at a gangster film. Gritty is assumed because it begins with a gnarly bit of violence, has plenty of bullets flying around and a lot of bloodshed and shouting. But in the end it has the appearance of a poser, unsure of itself and decreasing in entertainment value as it boom, boom, blams to its conclusion.

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  • Good Grief

    I laughed out loud at "mourns the shoe shine kid." It just seems so painfully cliched.

    Great review, Brad. I'll probably give this a watch over the weekend (for Emma Stone's Jessica Rabbit impression if anything) but at least I know what to expect now.

  • Yaz

    Yeah - can't say that I'm surprised... I'd be interested in the story behind how this cast came together for what is so obviously a bad film. What was the attraction there? With this director in line - and the script... Why did all these guys want in?

    • carrie

      Sean Penn wanted to work with Josh Brolin(a friend) and Ryan Gosling who wanted to re-team with Emma Stone who wanted to re-team with ZOMBIELAND director ?

      • Yaz

        I dunno... I was really surprised to see Penn take this on... The rest I can understand, but Sean fuckin Penn hamming it up as a bad guy... I dunno.

  • Corbin

    NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Not the shoe shine kid! Anybody but him! Anyways, this movie looks like crap, and I can't wait to spend my weekend doing anything but watch this.

  • Chris

    And Will Beal is the guy they hired to do the Justice League movie? Yikes.

    • JN Films

      I was thinking the same thing. I hope they get someone to re-write beal's script

  • Winchester

    I never had huge hopes for it. It always looked as if L.A Confidential had been written by fourteen year olds and made today. I kinda wondered if it would offer some pulpy nonsense but reviews suggest it doesn't even quite get there.

    I think I'll shift it to a rental. I need to catch up on the Oscar crowd anyway.

  • Dan O.

    It’s okay, but nothing all that special. Guess I should have known when it got moved back to January. Good review Brad.

  • Criterion10

    This doesn't surprise me at all. My expectations for this film were immediately after I saw how WB decided to handle the film.

  • Danny

    I actually enjoyed the film... Your "Dick Tracy meets Untouchables" assement is dead on... I was expecting a fun, 40' s set shoot'em up and that is exactly what was delivered. It was a perfect early year entry of escapism... Not heavy a film at all and it didn't need to be... I liked the throw back pulpy vibe of if... And though it has flaws, it was a beautifully shot movie that played the old school surface good vs evil card well... Could it have been a great LA Confidential type gangster film, of course! But that is not what it strived for and I don't think it ever tried or wanted to be that... It was clear everyone involved in filming it had fun while doing so, especially Penn...

    • Josh

      I completely agree with everything you said. I loved the film as well. It's just a fun action flick and it never tries or pretends to be anything deeper than that.

  • Foggy

    Watched this last night and you're bang on correct. There isn't a single scene in this film that doesn't feature at least one tired and contrived cliché.

    Not. One. Goddamn. Scene.

  • Alex Thomas

    I liked it :) Aren't all gangster films totally cliché? At least that's how I feel anyway.

    • loxmang

      finally, someone else who actually saw the movie. Definitely cliche but who cares, its a los angeles gangster movie. Not an epic gangster movie, but entertaining with the bright lights, good looks, and over the top one liners. And in my opinion, Gosling stole the show. I actually enjoyed this movie.

      • Alex Thomas

        I think you summed it up pretty well, Gosling was the show stealer and there was enough entertainment and cool cinematography to make it a good experience for me!

  • Dale

    Is there anything more depressing than an A+ cast stuck in a D+ movie? The reviews in general have been on the negative side and I'd been looking forward to the film because of the cool preview. I was hoping for something as riveting as "L.A. Confidential" but it looks like I'm out of luck.

  • Kieran Sturt

    Saw this today and let me tell you, Australian audiences are eating this shit up. The theatre was almost full where I saw it, which rarely happens other than for movies like The Avengers or The Hunger Games. It was about as full as when I went to see Skyfall, which is shocking.
    As for the movie; it was definitely stupid and cliched but the first two thirds were quite solid, I thought. Fleischer has a solid knack for CGI and action beats, and the acting was solid across the board. Everything after the China Town scene was messy and that ending... yeesh. I thought it was decent entertainment at least.

  • AS


  • Jack

    This is the screenwriter who is penning the Justic League movie. So, yeah, it's probably gonna suck.

  • C.J.

    Now while I do not think it is as bad a movie as you say. Neither is it great. I would have loved to see Michael Mann direct another gangster movie now that you mention it. Anyway I found this movie to be on the low end of decent. I had low expectations based on the fact that I hated 30 Minutes or Less. If I was 16 and had never seen The Untouchables, LA Confidential or Public Enemies then I probably would have thought it was a great movie but since I adore all three of those movies I saw it as a bad homage. A sort of wannabe with glimpses of potential.